Congress, Christian Nationalist judges, and COVID: Dispatches from Mark Dann, FFRF’s rep on Capitol Hill

Congress is back in session. You’d think that the Senate majority’s highest priority would be helping Americans survive the coronavirus pandemic. But its imperious objective instead is to confirm Christian Nationalist judges. As the contagion spreads and Americans die, the federal bench is being stocked with Christian Nationalists. Simultaneously — and for the first time in American history — the Trump administration is allowing for the direct funding of churches, even for inherently religious activities.

Let’s talk about what is happening in Congress, why these are dangerous developments, and what we can do together to stop them.

Christian Nationalist judges
The true legacy of this era will be the cementing of conservative dominance of the courts, and in effect, American life for generations. In the past few weeks, two Christian Nationalist judges, Justin Walker and Cory Wilson, are in the process of being confirmed to critical federal judgeships.

Walker is a strident proponent of the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal judiciary. He has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Оn that court he can decide on crucial issues related to state-church separation, religious liberty, religious exemptions, and the limits of presidential power.

Walker said about Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the wave of Trump judges that it's “a conservative revolution as big as the Reagan Revolution . . . Issues like affirmative action, school prayer, gun rights, and abortion will see drastic changes. I predict an end to affirmative action, an end to successful litigation about religious displays and prayers, an end to bans on semi-automatic rifles, and an end to almost all judicial [decisions allowing abortion]. This change will give Donald Trump the most conservative judicial legacy of any Republican in history, by far.”

Walker made at least 116 media appearances defending Kavanaugh, including at least 16 after Christine Blasey Ford testified.

Walker would argue that those statements are things he did while he was a private citizen and not a judge. But, unsurprisingly, he has continued promoting his political ideology as a judge. Walker recently issued a temporary restraining order allowing a Louisville church to have in-person attendance for Easter services. He used his judicial power to elevate the fundamentalist idea that a person’s private religious beliefs are actionable and take precedence over the health and well-being of all members of a community. FFRF has come out strongly against his nomination.

In the Louisville decision, Walker demonstrated that his judgment and temperament are not suited to the federal bench. He issued his opinion without allowing the city to weigh in. Walker’s rush to judgment is alarming because it relied only on the word of one church, especially the pastor’s affidavit, to determine the facts of the case.

Our allies in Congress have also expressed grave concern about Walker. At his Senate hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, remarked, “You deliberately excluded one side. You issued a TRO (temporary restraining order) against the city without providing the city notice of the case for an opportunity to present the facts. According to local news reports, the city tried to contact the court twice and you twice but was unsuccessful. You say that there was no time and yet you had time to write a 20-page opinion on your TRO with 84 footnotes. It is not credible to me that you did not have time to give the city an opportunity to present the facts. And they tried. That shows me how important facts are to you as a judge.”

We are extremely proud that several members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus — Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., and Susan Wild, D-Pa. — have opposed Walker’s nomination. These representatives looked at his record and concluded: “It is clear that his rules on crucial issues related to church-state separation, religious liberty, religious exemptions and the limits of presidential power would make him unfit for the position.”

Judge Wilson
Similar to Walker, Judge Cory Wilson has a long trail of weaponizing religious liberty. Wilson has been nominated to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court for Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. It presides over the highest percentage of residents of color in the country. Trump has already appointed five of the 17 judges sitting on the court.

He has demonstrated his Christian Nationalist bonafides in two publicly funded positions, first as a Mississippi state legislator and then as a state judge. On his personal twitter account, Wilson gives religious advice about unconstitutional federal declarations: “Today is the #NationalDayofPrayer. Here are some local events, but even if you pray at your desk, He will hear.” He also bragged about Mississippi being “near the top on a good list: The most religious states in America.

As a state legislator, Wilson voted for the controversial bill HB 1523, which has been called the “nation’s most sweeping anti-LGBTQ law” and gives broad religious-based exemptions to discriminate against others. The law allows Mississippians, on the basis of their religious beliefs, to refuse public or private services to married same-sex couples, people who have sex outside of marriage, and transgender people.

At Wilson’s hearing, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., questioned his fitness for the position. Coons said about Wilson that “some of your comments are so sharply partisan and demonstrate such personal hostility about who are real Americans and who count that it leaves me gravely concerned about your inclination to be a fair-minded jurist.”

If Walker and Wilson join the federal bench, they will add to the growing Christian Nationalist dominance of the courts. Yet, going into the 2018 election, 76 percent of all voters believe that courts will be a significant issue. More Americans are paying much closer attention to the courts at all levels — and are voting with the courts in mind.

COVID relief
59 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. So does FFRF. The Trump administration is allowing churches to access COVID relief funds even for explicitly religious purposes. FFRF quickly responded to this constitutional violation. We were one of the few national voices pushing back against the Trump administration on this issue. FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel wrote a hard-hitting op-ed in the Madison Capital Times, in which he asked:

How much of our money will flow to Trump’s inner circle of preachers? Will we be covering the mortgage on Jeffress’ $130 million church? Will we be paying President Trump’s “spiritual adviser” White’s church and White House salaries? Will the Catholic Church, mired in scandal and with a bank all its own, be dipping into taxpayers’ pockets? What about the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church?

In Religion Dispatches, Andrew argued in another op-ed: “Taxpayers cannot be forced to fund churches — even in a pandemic.”

I am so proud that so many of you are signing up and engaging your elected officials and asking them, “How are you defending state/church separation during COVID-19?” All of your representatives are conducting virtual or telephone town halls. These provide an excellent opportunity to hold your members of Congress accountable and, at the same time, build a constructive working relationship with them. If you haven’t signed up to engage your elected officials at their town halls, please do it now. It is the most effective thing you can do in these times, and let me know how it goes.

Building on our secular COVID response, our allies in the Congressional Freethought Caucus are denouncing the looney idea that Trump can order governors to exempt churches from state public health orders.

2020 and moving forward:
2020 is not unfolding how we expected it to. I have been constantly reminded of the importance of civic engagement. FFRF is also promoting universal vote by mail in this pandemic year as a secular issue.

I am so proud the FFRF has been at the forefront of expanding voting rights because it is a secular issue. We are honored that our friends at the Secular Student Alliance are advancing the secular community efforts to get out the secular vote this year and helped fund the internship that is driving that effort. FFRF is also promoting universal vote by mail in this pandemic year as a secular issue. There’s a lot to be done between now and the election. In hard times, it is hard to see good news, but America, with your continuing help, is moving in a secular direction.

Mark Dann
Director of Governmental Affairs
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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