The dispute over requiring church-run hospitals and schools to cover birth control for female employees has stirred up longstanding confusion over what the First Amendment does and doesn’t do. Some on the Christian Right insist that it means religious doctrine can trump secular law, but Rev. Howard Bess says that’s a misunderstanding.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
I begin with a statement that I have written over and over again: The United States is a secular nation in which religion is practiced freely. Our nation was perceived and molded by men of differing religious opinions. In their wisdom they wrote founding documents that both preserved and excluded religion. The U.S. Constitution is as thoroughly secular as a document can be.
No religious document was given authority by our founding documents. Not the Bible, not the Koran, not the Book of Mormon is allowed into our courtrooms as documents with authority over our public affairs. The Ten Commandments have no more authority over the laws of our nation than “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Indeed, in U.S. history, the rights of people often have been established over the protests of religious leaders. For instance, during those horrible years that ended with the abolition of slavery, preachers across the South were pounding their pulpits and quoting the Bible in support of slavery.
In the end, it was a secular nation that ended slavery in America. Though many Abolitionists also were motivated by strong religious beliefs about the evils of slavery, the final word on slavery was an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
During the struggles for equal rights for women, once again the opposition often was led by religious authorities quoting the Bible. Ultimately, the struggle was won by a secular nation that established equality for women through legislation and through court rulings that applied constitutional requirements for equal protection under the law to women.
In my years as a minister, two additional human rights issues have been dominant in the public square. The first is the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. For nearly 40 years, I have been involved in the struggle for full acceptance of gay persons in our churches and full rights of gay persons in the affairs of our nation.
Because of my involvement in the struggle for gay acceptance, I was shunned by a local ministerial fellowship, the church that I pastored was “disfellowshipped” by the American Baptist Churches of Alaska, and I was forced into early retirement. Again, religious leaders, citing the Bible, objected to full legal rights for gays.
Nevertheless, the struggle for gay rights has moved slowly but surely forward in the courts and in the nation’s political process. The recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing gay persons to serve in the U.S. military is a milestone almost as significant as the Stonewall Riot in 1969, which marked the start of the modern gay rights movement.
Just as with the issues of slavery and equality for women, opposition to the rights for gay persons has centered in churches. Ministers have pounded their pulpits and made their pronouncements against gay rights by quoting irrelevant passages from the Bible. Once again, churches are being dragged toward the moral standard of fair treatment for all by a secular nation. It is the secular U.S. Constitution that will bring justice to our gay citizens.
The second human rights issue of my ministerial years is the right to end a flawed or unwanted pregnancy. Does a woman have the legal right to choose to end a pregnancy or does that decision lie with government and governmental agencies?
Catholic and conservative Protestant churches have insisted that unborn life is sacred from the moment of conception and that a woman’s desires should have no bearing on the matter. However, under the secular Constitution, the government has no power to declare anything “sacred,” including an unborn child.
Instead, in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. Supreme Court balanced two competing rights, the privacy rights of a woman to control her own body against the viability of a fetus – with the state’s authority to protect unborn life growing in the later trimesters of a pregnancy as viability increased. The court’s reasoning was secular – weighing competing rights – not religious.
Yet, many politicians and institutions have sought to deny this constitutionally protected right to women. Fifteen years ago, I and others filed suit against our local hospital when the hospital refused an abortion to a woman who requested those services. We quickly were able to obtain a temporary injunction against the hospital, which was forced to offer abortion services. Eventually the case ended up before the Alaska Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
The local hospital still operates under a permanent injunction that forces them to offer abortion services. But the process was not easy. There were protest marches and pickets. The local newspaper carried an abundance of stories and opinion columns.
Once again in a civil rights issue the opposition centered on people of deep religious convictions. The air was full of Bible quotes and theological pronouncements. The majority of the community’s religious leaders were part of the anti-abortion protests. A smaller number were discreetly quiet.
But we again learned that we were dealing with a human rights issue in a thoroughly secular setting. The religious rhetoric was loud but had no legal standing. The issues in the abortion case were argued in civil courts, not in religious tribunals.
Over and over again, political candidates run on platforms of opposition to abortion. In many cases, it is a vote-getter among strongly religious believers. In reality, however, candidates who run on an anti-abortion platform should know that under the laws of our nation the abortion issue is secular. We are regularly reminded by political candidates that the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, but they often leave out the fact that it is a secular document.
Yet, while insisting that the U.S. government remain neutral on issues of religion, the secular U.S. Constitution also guarantees religious freedom for everyone. Baptists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Muslims, Jews, Lutherans and every other religious group are free to believe and practice their Faith.
All are free to express their opinions about abortion (or slavery or the role of women or gay rights), but none of their religious opinions have legal standing in our uniquely secular nation. The rule of law, not religion, is at the heart of our nation.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.