Perspective: Freedom of and also from religion

Rowan County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis was at the epicenter of a gay marriage dispute.
Rowan County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis was at the epicenter of a gay marriage dispute.
Published Oct. 23, 2015

Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan upset many when he urged delegates to the 1992 Republican convention to enlist in what he called the "religious and cultural war going on in this country."

But he may not have been off the mark — then or now.

There are a number of issues, rooted in theological and religious differences — involving everything from the beginning of life to its end, and many matters in between — that divide our country.

How these issues are resolved will determine whether the wall that separates church and state in America, protecting religious freedom for all, will still stand.

Abortion: The battle over a woman's right to an abortion has been both ideological and, in Florida and elsewhere, violent. But at its core, it is largely rooted in differing theological perspectives.

Religious-based advocates seek to codify beliefs held by some — but not all — religious groups that life begins at conception, and sometimes it seems that potential life deserves more legal protection than the health and rights of women.

The right to abortion, enshrined in Roe vs. Wade, exists on paper, but the effort to drive providers out of business has made it inaccessible in many parts of America. Some states are seeking to outlaw it by clever subterfuge, and the U.S. Supreme Court may permit that this term.

Death with dignity: Similarly, disputes about end-of-life decisions are fueled by differing theologies. Some approach this issue from the theological perspective that life is not ours to control, but a gift from the almighty, and that death must come "naturally."

This is supposed to justify policies prohibiting competent adults, particularly with a terminal illness, from the right to control their own death, denying them the assistance of their physicians in humanely implementing their decision by the prescription of lethal medication.

Beginning in 1997, Oregon allowed competent adults in the end stages of life to hasten their death with the assistance of their physicians. Washington, Vermont and Montana followed, and recently California Gov. Jerry Brown signed similar legislation.

In a case brought by the ACLU seeking to establish that right in Florida, the state Supreme Court denied terminally ill AIDS patients the right to obtain assistance from their doctors to avoid a painful death — despite an explicit constitutional right to privacy. But this was several years ago, before there was movement on this issue, and certainly before the public was shocked by former Gov. Jeb Bush's shameful intervention in the Terri Schiavo tragedy.

Equality: Whether LGBT people should be protected from discrimination is also fueled by theological views — Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis insists that her sincerely held religious views bar her not only from administering the law equally for the people in her county, but from following court decisions requiring her to do so.

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Davis and others who oppose recognizing all Americans as deserving of equal treatment often rest their opposition on the theological perspective that to do so would give legal recognition to what they deem a "sinful lifestyle."

Now that the revolution for equality for gays and lesbians has secured the right to marry, and in some jurisdictions legal protection from employment and other forms of discrimination, opponents cite the need to protect religious freedom and "pastor protection." But what that turns out to mean is the claim that one's religious views should be a legal basis to discriminate and deny services to lesbians and gays.

Public education: So many controversies about public education have been battles about separation of church and state — prayers at commencement, teaching the biblical story of creation (recast as intelligent design) and how to take note of religious holidays, to name a few.

This is often fueled by obscuring the difference between the moral and the religious, as when advocates simplistically claim that religion in the public schools is necessary to restore morality in the nation's youth.

Of course the public schools should transmit values to the next generation — but which values? The teaching of secular values — honesty, good citizenship and respect for others — is part of a good education. But in our constitutional democracy, inculcating religious values is left to the home, church, synagogue or mosque.

Barred from proselytizing children in the public schools, some seek to divert public funds to private schools, many of which are church-run.

Voucher advocates disguise this effort, as former Gov. Bush tried, as "hope and opportunity scholarships" or "empowering parents to control the education of their children." But the irreducible element in all voucher schemes is that they require taxpayers to subsidize religious education.

Health care: Including coverage for contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act is again before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. In the earlier Hobby Lobby case, the court weighed equality for women against religious freedom for corporations and business owners. That regrettable decision seems to establish a right for business owners to impose their religious views on employees who do not share those views.

The religious zealots hate separation of church and state. They do not recognize the principle as part of our history and do not accept the legitimacy of court decisions that rest on it. "The wall of separation between church and state is a myth created by the ACLU and liberal judges," the Rev. Pat Robertson said.

Now, 224 years after the adoption of the First Amendment's religious liberty principles, America has more religious diversity and more religious freedom (totaling houses of worship, church attendance, religious TV, radio programs or the number of religious bookstores) than any other country in the world — regardless of the scare tactics of religious zealots.

America enjoys both diversity and freedom because of the separation of church and state.

But whether we are able to pass on the heritage of religious freedom to future generations largely depends on the outcome of the disputes about issues like abortion, death with dignity, LGBT rights and public education.

If we are forced to live and die by someone else's theology, that seems more like religious tyranny than religious freedom.

Howard Simon is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.