Grad student essay contest sixth place tie: Constitution offers equal protection for all – By Arielle Neal

FFRF awarded Arielle $400.

By Arielle Neal

I am part of the growing population referred to as the “Nones,” a diverse group of people who are religiously unaffiliated and generally skeptical of the role religious institutions play in politics today.

The Pew Research Center reports that in 2016 “Nones” make up 23% of American adults and are the fastest growing “faith” group in the country. Despite this confirmation that we exist in growing numbers, the heavy religious pandering that colors the 2016 presidential campaign gives the impression that the candidates care little about appealing to our secular sensibilities.

As a group, the “Nones” are potentially the future crusaders for separation of church and state, the invisible threat inciting the Religious Right’s increasingly vicious protection of its position of power. The use of religious pandering to secure evangelical voter turnout comes with the cost of alienating “Nones” like myself.

The separation of church and state is the foundation of a functioning democracy and the very essence of the American ideals of freedom and liberty. The divisive tone that religious pandering has taken this election year has gone beyond subtle gestures that indicate a preference for religion over nonreligion. The current presidential election is dominated by voices that normalize religion, Christianity in particular, as an American value that needs protection.

I find this vilifying of secular views and religious minorities on the national political stage disconcerting and morally questionable. The 2016 national debate is rife with proclamations of persecution and bigotry in the name of Christian religious liberty.

Donald Trump’s claim that “as president, [he] will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened” is in conflict with the constitutional requirement of neutrality: that the government is prohibited from giving preferential treatment to one religion over another, as well as preferential treatment of religion over nonreligion.

The government’s blocking of the Religious Right’s manipulation of power for a narrow religious agenda is faithful to the original intention of the Establishment Clause. The protection of the Establishment Clause and the fight to keep religion out of government is not an attack on religious liberty, but rather a necessity to ensure that no American’s political rights are determined by the beliefs of today’s religious majority.

Let’s consider some of the actions the Religious Right would prioritize if given free religious reign over the government: criminalization of contraception; prevention of the marital union of LGBTQ couples; extradition of Muslim-Americans on the basis of their faith; refusal of non-Christian immigrants and refugees; and systematic indoctrination of publicly educated school children with religious teachings that seriously compromise the critical development of rational thinking and scientific understanding. It’s not that secular Americans are against religious expression; it’s that mixing religion and government is a recipe for the very theocracy our founders sought to escape.

The clear and present threat religious pandering poses to democracy is that it alienates and disengages the political participation required to keep a democracy functioning healthily. Unfortunately, the hysterical cries of evangelicals make better media headlines than education surrounding the founders’ intent. Herein lies the danger of promoting religious beliefs on the national political stage: The religious circus of the 2016 presidential campaign threatens to alienate and deter from voting the very voters whose participation works to protect the Establishment Clause.

The 2016 election season makes clear that the Religious Right feels the continued separation of church and state is an attack on its religious liberty by nonbelievers. Quite the opposite. Upholding the Establishment Clause is what guarantees religious liberty, regardless of the religion of the party in power. Justice Robert Jackson wrote in the dissenting opinion in Zorach v. Clauson: “The day that this country ceases to be free for irreligion it will cease to be free for religion — except for the sect that can win political power.”

With the number of religiously unaffiliated growing, the protection of this constitutionality may be of increasing importance to religiously affiliated Americans in the near future. Allowing political conversations to be dominated by religious belief overlooks the function of the Establishment Clause for the protection of religion just as much as for the protection of government. The protection of the Establishment Clause by secularists is an act of compassion toward the religiously affiliated, as it is an attempt to ensure the equal protection of citizens under the law.

Arielle Neal, 28, is a Nashville native and is working toward a master’s degee in business administration at Tennessee State University. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and obtained a master’s degree in social work from Middle Tennessee State University in 2015. She plans to work for an accountable care organization, addressing the fragmentation of health care systems.

Freedom From Religion Foundation