The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

It’s Time to Really Separate Church & State

I have long argued what the Religious Right calls separation of church and state is a series of special privileges bestowed, at the expense of everyone else, on anyone who claims a sincerely held religious belief.

What is particularly problematic is government is supposed to recognize these “sincerely held religious beliefs” but not define them. To define religion is to meddle in it. But what is religion but a series of claims about something supernatural for which there is no evidence needed. It is a whim, a fantasy, a thought made up on the spur of the moment in some cases, or a superstition with centuries of tradition behind it. It could be a doctrine asserted for the last millennium or could be one cooked up on the spur of the moment by some survivalist, grifter, or schizophrenic.

Consider the claim by evangelicals that selling a cake to a gay couple is forcing evangelical bakers to participate in the marriage, which violates their “sincerely held religious belief.” It is a doctrine made up on the spur of the moment and totally invented in the last few years. It has no theological history to it. Consider that same baker whose Bible says divorce is ungodly and once married always married. Yet they sold cakes to the divorced and never once asserted that in doing so they were participating in their marriage. It was only cooked up when gays could marry because evangelicals hate gays far more than they hate divorced people — in fact many of them were divorced multiple times while intoning about the virtues of “one man, one woman, for life.”

The Bible said nothing about interracial marriage but that didn’t stop evangelicals such as Bob Jones or John R. Rice from publishing manifestos about how God didn’t want “the mixing of the races.” It was a doctrine evangelicals invented once again to justify their own personal prejudices. And they continually claim these are revelations from God, until suddenly they aren’t. Most of them have shut up about the widespread racism in their churches — it is too harmful to their PR to say it publicly so they reserve it to whispers when in private. So most never say a word about interracial marriage and the “communist” plot to subvert the white race. That belief vanished and is no longer spoken about.

Kate Cohen, at the Washington Post, has published a column about the nonsense about religious exemptions from the law — or what I call a set of special privileges bestowed on anyone asserting they hear voices.

Cohen notes the religious claim exemptions from laws that everyone else have to follow and she asks why can’t the secular claim exemptions from laws that are based on religious nonsense.

“If religious people can opt out of secular laws they find sinful, then maybe the rest of us should be able to opt out of religious laws we find immoral.

That’s right: immoral. We act as if religious people are the only ones who follow a moral compass and the rest of us just wander around like sheep in search of avocado toast. But you don’t need to believe in God or particular religious tenets to have a strong sense of right and wrong.”

She notes she has a sincerely held moral belief that forcing a woman to incubate a fetus and give birth is wrong. But in the system of merger of religion and state only the religious get the privilege of ignoring laws. They can claim an exemption and then pass religiously based, hateful pieces of legislation and everyone else’s sincerely held beliefs are thrown down the toilet. That’s what I mean when I say the American perception of separation of church and state grants special rights to the religious and the religious only, at the expense of everyone else.

This is the problem with religious conservatives — their concept of individual rights is where they as individuals have any right they assert, while everyone else has any right conservatives are willing to grant. They are the final arbiters of what rights other people have. There is one set of rights for them and a separate—but not equal — set of rights for others.

They call this separation of church and state. In reality it is the church ruling and controlling the state. They pass the laws that are imposed on everyone else but their gathering places are entirely exempt from taxes. Under this warped concept a religious based “sodomy” law criminalized every homosexual person in the United States, only starting to change in 1961 when Illinois decriminalized it. This was entirely a law based on religious fantasies.

A law based on rights says each person has equal rights before the law. The religious fantasize they have superior rights because they are superior people. After all they speak for some mythical being that no one can see, and only they claim to hear.

Ms. Cohen notes the law grants faith-based assertions superiority over rational argument. In essence the way our system is now set up the irrational faith-based assertions of any lunatic or sincere religionist has superior status over fact-based, scientific evidence. Every con artist, grifter, or mountebank can claim special revelations and demand tax exemption while living off the millions he receives in “love offerings” while the rest of us are struggling to pay taxes.

Ms. Cohen says:

Religious laws are a part of our history, ranging in character from inconvenient (“blue” or “Sunday” laws) to unconscionable (laws banning interracial and same-sex marriage). But they are not a thing of the past. In fact, they seem to be enjoying resurgence. There are laws that discriminate against trans people. Laws that permit or require schools to teach creationism along with evolution. Laws that require schools to teach abstinence but not contraception.

I argue it is time to have genuine separation of church and state, religious beliefs deserve no more respect than other beliefs. If the rest of us have to pay for the use of the roads, policing and fire protection then so should they. The law shouldn’t single out religious groups for special prosecution but neither do they deserve special privileges. We need equality before the law and that means tearing down the history of privileges the religious have asserted for themselves at the expense of everyone else. It ends both religious persecution and religious privileges.


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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.