Heretic on the Hill: Spooky Season for Secularism

Halloween weekend is usually the scariest time of year, with miniature ghosts and devils going door to door, threatening tricks if there are no treats. This fall is scarier than usual for advocates of separating government and religion. At the recent Ohio Republican Senatorial debate, candidate Josh Mandel said, “There’s no such thing as separation of church and state,” and “We should be instilling faith in the classroom, in the workplace, and everywhere in society.” He’s the leading candidate in the most recent polls in a state that has been voting Republican recently.

In Virginia Vice President Kamala Harris is campaigning by video in hundreds of churches on behalf of candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe, who is appearing in person at churches for brief campaign speeches, as is his opponent Glen Youngkin. This appears to be a blatant violation of the Johnson Amendment which prohibits nonprofits including churches from participating in political activities. To be clear, the churches are legally at fault, not the politicians, but you would like to have candidates for office, or who are already in the White House, leave the campaigning out of churches. The enforcement of the Johnson Amendment by the IRS is nearly nonexistent so both political parties appear comfortable taking advantage of the situation.

Soon the Supreme Court will decide a case about state funding for religious schools that could have significant ramifications beyond this specific issue. Many areas of Maine do not have their own public schools. State law says one option is to “pay the tuition at the public school or the approved private school of the parent’s choice.” To qualify as an “approved private school” the law requires that the private school be “a nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment.” The case comes down to a debate over the “nonsectarian” requirement, and whether the Constitution guarantees families a sectarian—or religious—option.

So it’s scary out there, but there are some encouraging signs!

We are up to 32 Senate cosponsors for the Do No Harm Act. I had a meeting with staff for Senator Leahy two weeks ago and last week he signed onto the bill. As the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which must pass the bill before it goes to the Senate floor, his endorsement should carry some weight. I recently met with other Senate offices as well and I expect more additions. The House Do No Harm Act is up to 141 cosponsors, including the recent additions of Congressmen Quigley, Price, Aguilar, Lynch, and McNerney, all of whom I contacted recently. Please thank them if they represent you.

We asked you to ask your representatives to oppose H.R. 5480 which would apply a religious exemption to the new federal vaccine requirements. You’ll be happy to learn that the bill does not have a single cosponsor! So, congratulations. Again on the good news front, the House passed a bill this week funding domestic violence prevention programs without the “religious freedom” language some lawmakers wanted that would have allowed grant recipients to discriminate while providing services. Another win!

While we’re making progress on the Hill, the scary season won’t end at the Supreme Court any time soon. They may take up a case concerning a high school football coach who was fired for praying at midfield after games, first with the team and then by himself. The Court gets many opportunities to weigh in on First Amendment issues. The more cases they take up, the less sleep I’ll get. But don’t let the young devils or ghosts or superheroes scare you this weekend. It’s scary enough during the week!

While it may be spooky out there regarding church-state separation, the majority of Americans are on our side, but we need action to defend secularism.

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