Sixth place (tie II): Graduate/mature student essay contest by Jared Plotkin

Wall of separation in danger of crumbling

FFRF awarded Jared $400 for his essay.
By Jared Plotkin

In 2014, the principle of separation of church and state has been challenged in a variety of disturbing ways. Using code words like “religious liberty,” Christian conservatives have tried through the legal system to impose their beliefs on everyone. Hundreds of public schools across the country were shown to be teaching creationism, in defiance of federal rulings. Numerous bills were proposed allowing businesses to turn away gay customers based on the owner’s religious beliefs, with one so far, in Mississippi, signed into law.

Most recently, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court declared that not only are corporations people, they can be religious people, and that their “freedom of religion” trumps the rights of the actual people who work for the company. Each of these issues is an egregious constitutional violation. I wish, however, to discuss another development that is in many ways the clearest example of the way “religious liberty” has been misused to force one Christianity on the entire nation. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court ruled that not only could a city council meeting begin with a prayer, but the prayer could be explicitly Christian. The case is notable for several reasons.

The New York town had a history of selecting only Christians to lead the opening prayer. Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent: “In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions.” The 5-4 decision was also notable for the breakdown among justices. All the justices appointed by Republican presidents (and all Catholic) favored sectarian prayer, while all appointed by Democrats opposed it. The court’s split mirrors that of the town’s prayer-givers — the Christian majority imposing its views on everyone. The decision runs afoul of judicial precedent, which is increasingly becoming typical for this court. E.J. Dionne notes that “the court’s conservative majority is operating as a political faction” and is willing to embrace an activist role in order to achieve ideological goals.

Precedent like the “Lemon” test, which prohibits government entanglement with religion and ensures that policies involving religion serve a secular purpose, has been swept aside. Even more startling is how the “originalist” conservative justices have ignored the founders’ views on state/church separation.

The words of the majority opinion confirm this stunning departure from our roots. Justice Anthony Kennedy opined that the overwhelming majority of prayers were explicitly Christian was because town residents were “nearly all” Christian. Kennedy’s solution for those who object: Ignore the prayer or leave the room.

The agenda of conservatives who claim they want to expand “religious liberty” is revealed. They do not want religious liberty; they want its antithesis. They want to use the government’s authority to spread their beliefs to the exclusion of all others at taxpayer expense.

It’s no wonder that Justice Clarence Thomas filed a separate opinion with the majority stating that there’s nothing in the Constitution barring state and local governments from establishing an official religion.

Prayer at city council meetings might be a small issue, but the logic behind the majority’s view is not. Assuming that the court’s ideological makeup isn’t altered in the near future, this decision could open the floodgates to letting the religious majority force its views on the minority.

Those of us who believe that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion should be outraged.

Jared Plotkin, 28, Sacramento, is pursuing a master’s in political science at California State University-Los Angeles, where he’s the founding president of the Atheist, Agnostic and Non-Religious Student Alliance. He previously earned a B.A. in political science from UCLA-Irvine.

Freedom From Religion Foundation