The scuttling by House Republicans of a plan to name a courthouse for a pioneering Black judge because he’d ruled correctly against student-led school prayer is cause for serious alarm.
It is also cause to expose the role that Christian theopolitics is playing in Congress now.
Just as the theopolitical ideology of Christian nationalism was an underlying cause of the Jan. 6 insurrection, as the report FFRF co-published documents, so does it play a huge role in current extremist national politics.
The measure to name a federal building in Florida for the late Joseph W. Hatchett—who was the first Black person to serve on the Florida Supreme Court and the first Black man to serve on a federal appeals court in the Deep South—was not controversial and had broad bipartisan support.
In fact, it already passed the more conservative Senate. It’s the kind of measure that usually passes without debate or even a recorded vote. Senator Marco Rubio had hailed Hatchett for having “lived an inspiring life of service” and Florida Senator Rick Scott had even co-sponsored the measure.
The measure got hung up in the House only after a junior House member circulated a 1999 news article reporting on Hatchett’s decision as an appeals court judge against formal prayers in public schools. As the New York Times reports, “A routine measure becomes a litmus test for conservatives.”
But the Times failed in this instance to point out that in fact the litmus test for conservatives these days is whether or not a proposal lines up with theocratic Christian nationalist viewpoints.
Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia, a deacon at his Baptist church, is the House member who scuttled the measure to honor Hatchett. Clyde notoriously compared the Jan. 6 attack with a “normal tourist visit” and opposed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act. He even refused to shake hands with an officer whoto defended the capitoal from the assault. He also voted against making Juneteenth a federal holiday, so his hostility to honoring a Black judge is also likely motivated by racism.
But it wasn’t Hatchett’s race, it’s Hatchett’s support for the principle of separation between religion and government that made him suddenly unworthy to Clyde and many of his ilk. It was Hatchett’s able defense of the Establishment Clause and the longstanding precedent protecting public school students’ right to be free from religious ritual imposed at school events.
This case law dates to 1948, starting with the McCollum case against religious indoctrination in the public schools, continuing with the early 1960s Supreme Court rulings against school-imposed prayer, and the 1992 Lee v. Weisman case against graduation prayer (which Hatchett’s decision invoked). Hatchett’s ruling in fact anticipated the most recent high-court ruling in this arena, issued in 2000, that formally addressed and barred so-called student-led prayer over public address systems.
As Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief, Drew Hammill, commented, “The inmates are running the asylum, and the minority leader [Kevin McCarthy] is terrified to do anything but cast his lot with the most extremist and unhinged elements of his party.”
Those Christian nationalist “inmates” (usually dominating in the Senate) are not only dishonoring a pioneer like Hatchett, but are holding up the Equality Act, the Women’s Health Protection Act to codify Roe v. Wade, even basic voting rights—and our secular republic is going to suffer mightily for it. It is clear many of these so-called “conservatives” or “extremists” as they are euphemistically termed, would prefer to unpatriotically pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, instead of to the flag and the secular Constitution of the United States of America.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation works as a state/church watchdog, and is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and other skeptics) with more than 36,000 members.