If you were paying attention, you may have noticed a shift in the orientation of the bills coming out of the Republican-controlled state legislatures in the past few months. As with the recently vetoed bill in Arizona, they increasingly use the term “religious freedom” to justify intolerance and bigotry. Much of this pandering on social issues is to give their voters a reason to support them at the polls, and continue to vote against their own interests. They were doing very well using the old “family values” ploy to do this for so many years, so one might wonder what’s behind this new framing.
The right has long used religious freedom to fight various aspects of Obama’s healthcare plan, make changes to the educational system, and justify the oppression of women. Now it is the go-to excuse for most issues. All of these measures are unconstitutional, regardless of the justification for them—every single one. Even the present Supreme Court has refused to allow any of these measures to remain law. In light of that, why do they keep bringing them up and passing them, and why do the voters keep supporting them? What do they have to gain?
The answer lies in the warped view of United States History and American jurisprudence being fed to the right wing on a daily basis. Their ministers, politicians, writers, and media all tell the same story: our founders intended to establish a Christian nation, the Constitution does establish that, and the individual states have the ability to overrule any US law, and even the Constitution itself.
Surveys bear this out. According to the First Amendment Center, over 60% of Americans believe that the founders intended to establish a Christian nation, while over 50% of them believe that they succeeded. In addition, 67% of conservatives, and 71% of evangelicals believe our Constitution establishes a Christian nation.
David Barton, the history professor of the religious right, has created a fantasyland where all our founders, from Madison and Jefferson, to Adams and Franklin were bible-thumping true believers. In Barton’s America, the Constitution established a Christian nation, and the first amendment only protects organized religion from government interference.
Thomas Woods, a Libertarian writer, teaches in his on-line Liberty Classroom that states can “nullify” or ignore acts of congress, if they deem them unconstitutional. That the Constitution forbids such nullification, and that no attempt by a state to do it has been successful, doesn’t seem to matter.
If you hear such nonsense for many years, you might expect that someday “justice will prevail,” God will return to his proper place in the scheme of things, and the “truth” will win-out. The more frustrated you become because the rest of the country doesn’t “get it,” the more likely you are to support and vote for those who appear to be offering solutions—no matter how radical the solutions are.
There are many signs that fundamentalist Christianity appears to be on the wane in America. Church attendance is down across all denominations, and they are bleeding membership, chiefly among the young. What we appear to be witnessing in this spate of legislation all over the country is desperation, pure and simple. The mood of the country is changing, and the old “family values” ploy no longer gets any traction. Most Americans, religious or not, are sophisticated enough to realize that what others do in their own bedrooms does not affect them or their relationships in any way.
Religious freedom, on the other hand, resonates with a greater number of Americans, in particular those whose knowledge of American history is insufficient to understand the bogus nature of the claims. At least half of the U.S. population believes the Constitution established a Christian nation, and whether or not they go along with the specific demands of the religious extremists, they support their right to make them, and sympathize with the discrimination charges because they think they may be next.
Our federal district court system and even the Supreme Court has always refused to allow these dominionist state laws to remain in force. They have struck-down voting laws, abortion laws, gay marriage laws, and laws that would have allowed private and even state employees to discriminate against certain classes of people because they established religion. Not just “a” religion, in all these cases, but a particular religion, and in fact a specific segment of that particular religion.
Take a moment and consider what life in the United States, or a portion of the United States would look like if we found ourselves in a bizarro world where these religious freedom laws could not be reviewed by the courts. Couldn’t happen you say? Under our present system of laws, you’re right, but bear with me for a moment. Let’s look at just one state, the state of North Carolina.
Right now, Republicans in North Carolina control both houses of the state legislature, and the governorship. The state is so well gerrymandered that this control will last at least through the next three election cycles, and the next census. They have used their control to pass a number of conservative measures, most of which come from ALEC, or other such right-wing coordinating entities. At present, the state is following the lead of most of the other red states in passing regressive anti-worker, pro-business legislation.
In April, 2013, Republicans in North Carolina introduced their “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” (HB 751) which closely mirrors the bill passed in Arizona, and vetoed by the Governor. The bill would do what the Arizona bill would have done—allow anyone in the public or private sectors to discriminate against whomever they wished, as long as they based the discrimination upon their religious belief. The bill is sitting in committee, and probably will not be voted upon this year (although it could be attached to other legislation.) The bill wouldn’t stand a chance of passing a review by a federal court, but what if it couldn’t be reviewed? In that event, why wouldn’t the legislature pass more onerous legislation? How might North Carolina appear in ten years?
- Abortion, followed by all forms of contraception could be outlawed.
- Homosexuality could be grounds for dismissal from any job, public or private, as would non-belief in God.
- There could be no science in the public schools in North Carolina, if it conflicted with religious belief in any way.
- Voting rights could be contingent upon a religious oath, as would holding public office of any kind.
- A “state religion” could be established supported by taxes.
- All public or private employees could refuse service to anyone they had a religious objection to, including gays, non-believers, and even women in certain professions.
- Any book, movie, or other form of communication could be censored or blocked if deemed “offensive” to any religious group.
- Religions other than the “established” religion could be outlawed, and anyone practicing any outlawed religion, or form of non-belief would be subject to arrest and prosecution.
- All forms of blasphemy could be outlawed, with stiff penalties for offenses.
Does this sound like a straw-man argument? Do you think I am overreaching here? Various states passed similar laws over the years, only to see them overturned by federal courts. Laws like these were on the books and enforced in one or more of the nine original colonies that had established state religions prior to the adaptation of the Constitution. Their replacement with a secular Constitution and Bill of Rights was a long uphill struggle for those of our founders who envisioned a republic that would be free of the religious disputes that had plagued Europe for centuries.
All it would take to overrule the wisdom of our nation’s founders would be a bill that would make it impossible to challenge the acts of federal or state legislatures, or even local governments, if they did whatever they did because of their religious belief. Enter the Constitution Restoration Act of 2005.
In the last year of Republican control of the Senate, a bill called the “Constitution Restoration Act of 2005” was introduced in both houses of Congress. The act forbade the US Supreme Court, or any federal court, from reviewing a decision made by any level of government, if the decision was based upon their “Acknowledgment of God as the sole source of law, liberty or government.” The law read as follows:
“Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, the Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer or agent of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), concerning that entity’s, officer’s, or agent’s acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.”
In other words, a state legislature might decide to place a monument containing the text of the Ten Commandments or even a cross on state property, and neither the US Supreme Court, nor any federal court, could review that decision. Going further, what would stop a governor or state legislature from requiring future state employees to be Christians? What indeed could stop them from discriminating against any group, based upon their religious belief? Herb Titus, Pat Robinson’s lawyer, wrote this “restoration” act, along with Judge Roy Moore. The same Judge Moore who defiantly refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from his own court.
This is what Judge Moore said about the bill:
“The purpose of the CRA is to restrict the appellate jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court and all lower federal courts to that jurisdiction permitted them by the Constitution of the United States. The acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, and government is contained within the Declaration of Independence, which is cited as the ‘organic law’ of our Country by United States Code Annotated. The constitution of every state of the Union acknowledges God and His sovereignty, as do three branches of the federal government. The acknowledgment of God is not a legitimate subject of review by federal courts.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors was North Carolina Senator, Richard Burr. At the time, I was a resident of North Carolina, so I decided to write the Senator a letter concerning the bill. In my letter, I expressed my misgivings about the legislation and my concerns about the effect this legislation might have on church/state separation issues as calmly and rationally as I could. Here is part of what I said:
“I suspect that bills such as this are drafted and proposed purely to pander to a certain segment of the population, and are probably never seriously considered for passage. I am curious, though, how a supposedly educated Senator co-sponsor a ‘Constitution Restoration’ bill that does no such thing. The only thing this bill would ‘restore’ would be the patchwork of state religious laws that existed prior to the ratification of our secular Constitution.”
Although I really wasn’t expecting a reply, Senator Burr sent me a very nice letter, detailing his involvement with the bill, and justifying its existence in the following paragraph:
“An acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, and government is cited in several historical documents as the foundation of the establishment of our country, including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Code. Furthermore, the individual state constitutions of all 50 states acknowledge God in the same context.”
Notice the similarities in the two paragraphs above written by Burr and Judge Roy Moore. The bill went to the Judiciary Committee, where it died after the Democrats took over the Senate in 2006. Had the Republicans not relinquished Senate and House leadership in that election, I have no doubt this bill would have been brought to the floor, and perhaps would be law today.
Here we are back in 2014, where the current polls indicate that the Democrats might lose control of the Senate for the first time in eight years. I say might. Things would have to fall just right in a number of key states for the Republicans to pick-up the required number of seats, but it could happen. Moreover, if it did happen, would the Republicans resurrect the Constitution Restoration act? If they managed to pass it in both houses, could they tack it onto something that Obama had to sign?
If this bill ever become law, the results would be catastrophic. I have not been one who favors partisan politics for several years, believing that there is little substantive differences between the parties. This is one area, though, that there is a difference, and Democratic voters should be aware of that.
In the current cycle, the right wing is already pouring millions into races all over the country. In North Carolina alone, Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by the Koch brothers, is spending unprecedented amounts on TV ads to unseat Democrat Kay Hagan. Conservative groups are going all-out to buy the Senate for the Republicans, and according to the polls, they are succeeding.
I know that many Democrats are dissatisfied with Obama, and/or the ACA, and rightfully so. Normally, I would recommend boycotting this mid-term entirely, but because of the damage the Republicans could do very quickly after taking over the Senate, I suggest that Democrats go all-out to support Senate candidates in the contested states.
I know it sounds far-fetched, but failure to retain control of the Senate could result in a virtual theocracy, with the American Taliban very much in charge. Do not think for a moment that Obama would veto legislation like this. Just consider how fast he would sign a bill with the Constitution Restoration Act attached to congressional approval of his Trans-Pacific Partnership.