Church and State Separation via the Supreme Court

Dangers of connecting the church and state.

The Supreme Court this week made a series of decisions that challenge the central tenet of secularism in the nation: the separation of church and state.

First and most shockingly, the nine justices unanimously handed Donald Trump a victory on his controversial Muslim ban. Justices decided to let parts of the ban take effect until the court takes the case up in the fall.

Second, the court agreed to hear the case of a Colorado baker who wants the right to refuse service to a gay couple on the basis of his Christian convictions.

And third, the court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri receiving state tax funds to restore a playground on its property. In making this ruling and taking up the other two cases, the court is strongly signaling that it takes seriously the demands of a fanatical Christian evangelical movement that seeks domination over American life.

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The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, explains what happened in an interview, saying, “The Supreme Court is moving more and more in an ultra-conservative direction” and that Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch has proven he is “even more conservative than his predecessor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia.” But Gorsuch was joined by all eight of his fellow justices, including liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, in allowing a narrower version of the ban to take effect and deciding to hear the case.

“They did not have to do this,” Lynn points out. “They did not have to go even this far.” He believes the justices will realize that the ban is “designed to hurt Muslims and help Christians.”

Surely the court could have simply decided to rule on the case without allowing for its partial implementation. But in doing what it did and doing so unanimously, the justices have given Trump their symbolic stamp of approval on one of the ugliest orders issued by the new president—one that lower-court judges have found to be in clear violation of the Constitution.

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The ban is not being implemented exactly as Trump envisioned. It will apply only to new visa applicants from six specified Muslim countries who seek entry to the U.S. and do not have a “bona fide relationship” with someone in the country. The test that border agents and embassy staff will apply to potential visitors is likely to result in a repeat of the confusion and chaos that erupted at U.S. airports after the ban was first announced, when many Americans showed their disgust with protests and demonstrations.

There was a time in the U.S.—not too long ago—when businesses refused to serve African-Americans. Just as they do today, conservatives back then cited religious freedom to justify their bigoted behavior. Lynn draws the historical parallels, saying, “There were a lot of preachers on big, powerful, 50,000-watt radio stations who were, among other things, citing the book of Genesis and saying that ‘God separated the light from the darkness’ to prove that God’s intended arrangement was for segregation of the races.” If courts ruled that segregation on the basis of religious conviction was wrong then, one wonders why anti-LGBTQ bigotry is justifiable now.

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The third instance this week in which the Supreme Court blurred the lines between church and state—quite literally—was in a ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo. The church wanted to access state funds to refurbish its playground, which is used by children who attend its preschool—a school that, in the words of Trinity Lutheran, “incorporates daily religion and developmentally appropriate activities in a preschool program.” When the state refused, on the grounds that the use of state funds violated state laws of church-state separation, the church sued. Although Missouri’s governor eventually subverted those rules and granted the church the tax funds, the Supreme Court decided to insert itself into the mix and take up the case, ruling in the church’s favor.

While it sounds innocuous for a church to use state funds to fix up a playground, the court’s ruling now sets a dangerous precedent. Lynn considers it “a really terrible ruling” and “portends very bad things for the future of funding.” Betsy DeVos, Trump’s head of the Department of Education and a strong proponent of state funding for religious schooling, is celebrating this ruling. But Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, says, “If your children are potentially at risk in your church or on your church’s playground, it’s your responsibility to make it safe,” not the state’s.

If the religious institution at the heart of this Missouri incident were a mosque rather than a church, can we imagine the Supreme Court making such a ruling?