April 4, 2003May 2, 2003Meeting Report

April 27, 2003

Full Transcript of Edd Doerr's Speech:
"Will Church-State Separation Survive the Reign of George The Second?"

Will church-state separation survive the reign of George the Second? No one can predict, but before getting into the subject, it might be good to review just how we got church-state separation, which most authorities agree is the most significant and most important contribution that our country has made to civilization.

In every part of the world without exception throughout history, religion and government have been closely linked. Sometimes they could not be viewed as distinct at all, as in fundamentalist Muslim countries. Our story should begin in the early 17th century when English dissenters moved to Holland to better exercise their religious freedom. As they had a great deal of difficulty with the Dutch language, as many of us would, they returned to England and decided to resettle in British North America. We call them the Pilgrims. Interestingly, their church is now a Unitarian church of a more or less Humanist bent. Their ideological cousins, the Puritans, settled around Boston for similar reasons around 1630. It has been said that they loved religious freedom so much that they wanted to keep it all for themselves. Thus we had the expulsion of Anne Hutchinson and her children from the colony in 1638 and the execution of Mary Dyer and several male Quakers on Boston Common in 1660 for the crime of simply being Quakers.

As time went on, the British North American colonies developed a certain degree of religious pluralism, mainly Anglican from Maryland on south, and Congregationalist or Puritan in the New England colonies, except for Rhode Island, where Roger Williams came up with the idea of preserving religious liberty through separating religion and government. In between we found Catholics, German Lutherans, French Huguenot, Sephardic Jews, and others. Not much happened until 1775 when people now called Americans began a several-year struggle for independence from Great Britain. During that struggle the religious differences of people led, in Virginia, to the decade-long effort by Jefferson and Madison to implant the idea of religious liberty and church-state separation in Virginia law. They succeeded in 1786, and the remainder of the new states eventually followed their example.

The very next year, the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia and we adopted one of the first charters of government in the world. It gave to government no authority whatever to meddle with religion, the only mention of it being in Article VI, where religious tests for public office and mandatory oaths of office were prohibited.

Jefferson, then ambassador to France, wrote to his buddy Madison and commented that the Convention had done a fine job except that it had not put in a Bill of Rights. Madison and other politicians found that promising to add a Bill of Rights was the only way to get the Constitution ratified. In 1789 the first Congress adopted the Bill of Rights — that is, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In 1802, in response to complaints from Baptists in Connecticut, Jefferson wrote that he "viewed with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people … that erected a wall of separation between church and state." That is how the phrase came into common use in our country and eventually spread to other advanced countries.

Unfortunately the states did not do a terribly good job of applying the principles of the Bill of Rights and so, after the Civil War, a farsighted Congress led by Representative Bingham of Ohio and Senator Howard of Michigan introduced the Fourteenth Amendment. This was intended, by its authors and the Congress that approved it, to make the Bill of Rights applicable to state and local government. Unfortunately, in the 1870s, the Supreme Court ruled in some Louisiana cases that the Fourteenth Amendment really did not mean much at all. It was not until 50 years later, in the 1920s, that a new Supreme Court began applying bits and pieces of the Bill of Rights to state and local government through the "due process" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

That is the end of the history lesson. There will not be a quiz.

For the last 200 years, most American politicians and religious leaders and thinkers have agreed with the position taken by Jefferson. Unfortunately however, today we are seeing a split in the Supreme Court over the "separationist" or Jeffersonian/Madisonian point of view and the "accommodationist" point of view originally promoted by Patrick Henry of Virginia, who, fortunately, lost the argument to Jefferson and Madison.

Beginning in the 1940s the Supreme Court began applying the separation principle in major rulings on religious liberty, which we need not bother to list here. But, beginning in the late 1970s, we began to see a certain erosion of the separation principle. The addition to the Supreme Court of justices like Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas, augmented on and off by Kennedy and O’Connor, began to move the Court away from Jeffersonian separation. The great danger today is that George the Second will succeed in stacking the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts with accommodationists who could well destroy church-state separation entirely.

Let us look at the major problem areas.

One of the most serious issues before us today is the question of tax support, extracted from all citizens, for the support of faith-based schools and charities. I do not wish to knock private schools generally, or religious charities generally, as they have made important contributions, but there is something seriously objectionable about making citizens pay involuntarily for private religious institutions, not of their own choosing, that would be allowed to discriminate in hiring and to proselytize. This is really evident in private schools, most of which are pervasively sectarian and many of which, particularly so-called Christian day schools, promote bigotry against anyone who is not a fundamentalist or evangelical. Californians have had the good sense in the last ten years to twice reject school voucher plans by a better than 2 to 1 margin. That opposition to vouchers comes from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, whites and blacks and browns. Similar referendum defeats for school vouchers or their analogs have been registered over the past 35 years in Massachusetts (twice), New York, Maryland (twice), the District of Columbia, Michigan (three times), Missouri, Colorado (twice), Oregon (twice), Washington State, and Alaska. The Colorado legislature’s approval of a new voucher plan this year is a deliberate thumbing of the nose at both the voters of the state and the clear provisions of the state constitution. It is to be hoped that the state courts will put this ugly genie back in its bottle.

Any voucher or similar plan would have the effect of fragmenting our school population along religious, ethnic, class, linguistic, academic ability level, and other lines. Vouchers or their analogs would rob our already needy public schools of support and increase the costs of education considerably. Teachers would be reduced to the level of sectarian indoctrinators.

The big problem with tax support of faith-based charities is that such support would result in an incredible proliferation of unaccountable operations of uncertain efficacy, but George the Second and his Attorney General, John Ashcroft, referred to recently by historian Arthur Schlesinger as a "religious nut," are intent on pushing this mess in the courts. Worse, by using executive orders, they have ignored Congress.

Moving on, we see a set of problems with religion in public schools. Forty years ago, the Supreme Court held, both wisely and properly, that public schools must be religiously neutral. All attempts to amend the Constitution to move schools away from that neutrality have been defeated in Congress. But the Religious Right keeps on trying, most recently in 1998, when the Istook Amendment was smashed. But Istook is back again.

We are still having to deal with the efforts by fundamentalists to either dilute the teaching of evolution in science classes or to get "equal time" for fundamentalist creationism. The Supreme Court ruled our way, 7 to 2, in 1987 in a Louisiana case. I am happy to say that I was instrumental in getting before the Court an amicus curiae brief, signed by 72 Nobel laureates in science, in support of evolution.

Another rather more vague problem arises with the possibility of teaching about religion in public schools. I believe this is now required in California, though I do not know how properly it is being done. My friend Jack Masson, in San Mateo, led to the development of a coalition involving the American Humanist Association, the Council on Secular Humanism, and others to promote balance and neutrality. There is no real demand in the country for teaching about religion; there are no state certification procedures for teachers; there are no teachers trained to do the job; and I have yet to see an adequate textbook. If religion cannot be taught about objectively, neutrally, and in a balanced way, including our end of the spectrum, it should not be done at all. As a former history teacher I know that religion must be dealt with, but it has to be done very carefully. And if you’re going to talk about the bright side of religion, you are obligated to talk about the dark side as well. For every Martin Luther King, there were many hundreds, if not thousands, of preachers who defended segregation. Enough said.

Now let us come to an issue that I am sure you want me to talk about, the Newdow case, in which the Ninth Circuit has twice ruled that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance may not be imposed on children in public schools. Technically, Newdow is correct and, technically, the Ninth Circuit is correct. However, on the basis of everything I have learned in Washington over 40 years, if the Supreme Court does not find a weasely way to overturn the Ninth Circuit ruling, then we can be as certain as that the sun comes up in the East, that an effort will be made in Congress to amend the Constitution to reinsert the phrase and there is no way possible that such an amendment could be stopped either in Congress or in the state legislatures that would ratify it. Moreover, such an amendment would likely be ornamented with school vouchers, tax aid for faith-based charities, school prayer, creationism, and anti-abortion provisions.

The lesson in all this is that it is not enough to be right. You have to be smart and you have to think strategically. If, in World War II, as the Russians demanded, the United States and Great Britain had attempted to invade Europe in 1943, we would have been clobbered. Eisenhower was right: You have to think strategically and pick your fights when you know you can win them. Anything else is suicidal. None of this "Into the valley of death rode the 600; ours is not to question why; ours is but to do or die."

Another extremely important area of battle concerns reproductive rights. While the Supreme Court held in 1973 that a woman has a constitutionally protected right to decide for herself whether or not to become a mother, that right has been slowly eroded by federal and state legislation, by assorted court rulings, by violence and threats of violence from anti-choice fanatics, and by the failure of Americans generally to defend the rights of women adequately. No anti-choice constitutional amendment is likely to be passed, but the anti-choicers have other methods. Waiting periods, parental notifications, and mandatory provision of medical misinformation are but some of the ways. There is Congress’s effort to ban so-called "partial-birth abortions" — not a medical but a propaganda term, and an effort to throw a monkey wrench into reproductive health care. The Supreme Court will, one hopes, deal with the legislation currently going through Congress the way it did two or three years ago in the case of Stenberg v. Carhart

Then you have the actions by Reagan, Bush the First, and Bush the Second to impose a gag rule on all overseas institutions providing family planning assistance, who might so much as mention abortion as an option. Just in the last year, the Administration of George the Second blocked provision of $34 million appropriated by Congress for the UN Population Fund. And, just last December, the Bush Administration made this country look extremely foolish at the UN population conference in Bangkok. The U.S. stood alone in advocating the fundamentalist position. It is interesting that one of the U.S. delegates to this conference, John Klink, was a Vatican delegate to the 1994 UN Population Conference in Cairo.1

It is clear that George the Second is playing to his Religious Right fundamentalist base and to the wishes of the Vatican and the Catholic bishops, who, it should be emphasized, in no way begin to adequately represent the Catholic people, who tend to be liberal and were the people who elected Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Where do we go from here? First of all, we have to recognize that Humanists, Unitarian Universalists, and people of similar bent cannot fight this battle alone. It can only be fought successfully if we ally with moderate to liberal people and leaders in the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities. The AHA has been working with these other groups for a great many years. The AHA has been a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice since it was founded in 1973, in part through the efforts of the then AHA/AEU/UUA lobbyist in Washington, Bob Jones. We have worked with a vast array of religious, educational, civil liberties, civil rights, labor and other groups to oppose school vouchers and Bush’s charitable choice initiatives. This kind of cooperation is essential if church-state separation is to win and must be done on the national, state, and local level. An excellent example of local cooperation is the Texas Freedom Network

Internationally the AHA has joined with Catholics for a Free Choice in Operation See Change, a multinational, multi-organizational effort to get the Holy See (the Vatican) out of its unique and specially privileged position in the UN General Assembly, where it works incessantly against women’s and reproductive rights. We may never win, but we have to fight the good fight.

At this point I should mention that in the last two years the AHA has adopted, as an affiliate, Americans for Religious Liberty, an organization founded in 1982 by Sherwin Wine of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and Ed Ericson of the American Ethical Union. Americans for Religious Liberty is based in the AHA Washington office and this makes the AHA the only Humanist organization to have its own church-state separation operation. ARL is governed by a seven-person board, including the treasurer of the AHA. I have been the executive director and then president of ARL since its foundation. I believe that, available at the meeting today, are copies of ARL materials which I hope you will take with you. One way to promote church-state separation is to provide support for Americans for Religious Liberty.

I am currently drafting a plan that AHA chapters may wish to use to deal with church-state issues on the local level.

It is regrettable that I cannot be here in person to field questions for the next hour, but you can always contact me by email, snail mail, fax or phone at the addresses on the materials available at this meeting.

Thanks for coming today, thanks for listening, and the best of luck in your endeavors.

Edd Doerr

Delegates from Asia and the Pacific had gathered to prepare for a United Nations population conference in December. The U.S. sent a newly appointed, inexperienced but confidently fanatic spokesperson, together with John Klink, a hardliner who formerly represented the Vatican, to threaten the rest of the world. The U.S., they told the stunned delegates, is all set to withdraw its support from an historic 1994 agreement on reproductive health. Source: Michelle Landsberg, Toronto Star. Back

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