Opinion: From the Left: “Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Religion”

Lance Simmens

“Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Religion”

From the Left 

by Lance Simmens 

The last several weeks have revealed what unfortunately portend to be seismic shifts in what we as Americans have viewed as a progressively bending arc of the moral universe towards justice. Indeed the arc of the moral universe as envisioned by a majority of the Supreme Court is arguably bending towards a darker time where rights of privacy, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and a tyranny of the minority are on the ascendency and democracy, freedom, and liberty are threatened.

While we have rightly focused on the recent SCOTUS decisions eviscerating Roe v. Wade and promoting the rights of gun owners, other decisions getting lesser attention are nevertheless worrisome to those who actually believe in the constitutional protections that have been refined over the past two and a half centuries. One such example is the SCOTUS decision involving the invalidation of a Maine law that helped protect the concept of separation between church and State.

While the exact words are not found in the first Amendment, the concept and intention is clearly elucidated in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury (CN) Baptist Association, where he says, “the First Amendment had built a separation between Church and State.” It is difficult to imagine a more knowledgeable or informed participant to instruct the meaning of the Constitution than the second President of the United States and a critically important founding father.

Nevertheless, the separation of which Mr. Jefferson commented upon is currently under fire by a ruling that specifically strikes down a program that the State of Maine allows for the payment of tuition for students to attend private “nonsectarian” schools, not religious schools, in the rural parts of the State where no public schools exist. The decision means that taxpayers of Maine will be forced to pay for tuition at religious schools, a clear violation of the intent of the authors of the Constitution.

In dissent, Justice Breyer asks whether it means “that a school district that pays for public schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools?” Joining is dissent Justice Sotomayor notes, “the two Maine schools that may now receive public funding are openly discriminatory, expelling students and teachers who do not adhere to evangelical Christianity. LGBTQ students, as well as straight children of same-sex couples, are not welcome, nor are LGBTQ teachers. Even custodians must be born-again Christians. One school teaches students to refute the teachings of the Islamic religion and believe that men serve as the head of the household. Another requires students to sign a covenant promising to glorify Jesus Christ and attend weekly religious services. 

The ruling in Carson v. Makin represents an attack upon religious freedom. The founding fathers most likely never envisioned the extent to which America would become the melting pot of diversity and a world leader in democratic principles that encouraged freedom and liberty for all. These things made us the envy of the world, and there are indications that the backwards looking institutions of government, whether in the Legislative, Executive and/or Judicial branches, is feeding the divisiveness that is currently inflicting grave damage upon those very democratic principles.

As the product of a Catholic education through high school I can attest to many positive aspects of the parochial school system. However, I would and could never condone that the public at large was responsible for funding such a venture. My parents, middle-class products of society, were capable of making the decision to afford such an investment. But that is a personal decision and one based upon a religious upbringing. 

The notion and history of public education in this Nation is an American success story; it encourages the very diversity that has made us stronger throughout our existence. Decisions such as what we are witnessing from the current SCOTUS are directly antithetical to the virtues and values which have taken root in our Constitution. 

What is equally disturbing about this and other recent decisions, such as the Dobbs case, is that the Nation’s highest court has very blatantly signaled that it is only the beginning of further restrictions that will attempt to curb the very freedoms and liberties that we have come to expect in the world’s greatest democratic experiment. 

We are not a Christian nation, nor should we be. Justice Breyer notes in his dissent, “Maine wishes to provide children within the State with a secular, public education. This wish embodies, in significant part, the constitutional need to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion. That need is reinforced by the fact that we are today a Nation of more than 330 million people who ascribe to over 100 different religions.” That represents true religious freedom; the current Court ruling directly challenges the clear intention of the founding fathers.