IFAS | Freedom Writer | January/February 1997 | battlefront.html

The church-state battlefront: 1997

By Edd Doerr

The new year began with a bang, literally. On New Year's Day two firebombs damaged the Reproductive Services Clinic in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Police said they had no suspects.

The explosions should serve as a wake-up call for any who thought that Bill Clinton's reelection and the seeming (to some) quiet of televangelist Pat Robertson's so-called Christian Coalition would mean a peaceful year on the church-state battlefront. On the contrary, 1997 is likely to be as nasty as any in memory. Here is my prognosis for the year, based on thirty some years of full-time activism in this problem area.

With regard to abortion rights, which boils down to the core issue of every individual woman's freedom of conscience in deciding whether or not to continue a problem pregnancy, 1997 will see continued efforts to restrict that fundamental right. We will see another attempt to get Congress to outlaw the rather rare late-term abortion procedure intact dilation and extraction, misnamed "partial birth abortion" by the anti-choice lobby. President Clinton vetoed such legislation in 1996 because it made no excep tion for procedures deemed medically advisable for health reasons, and Congress failed to overturn the vote.

National level efforts will be paralleled by efforts on the state level to reduce access to reproductive health care in various ways that tend to affect poorer women more than their more well-off sisters.

This year will see a massive new drive to get tax support for private schools, the vast majority of which are pervasively sectarian and selective, through vouchers or some similar mechanism. This drive, aimed at both Congress and state legislatures, is led mainly by the Catholic bishops (who are often more progressive on other social issues, except for reproductive rights, than white Protestants), the fundamentalist theocrats led by Robertson's Christian Coalition, and secular ultraconservatives who simply dislike public education. The voucher or "parochiaid" campaigners try to soften the opposition by badmouthing public education and singing the praises of private schools (whose apparent superiority over public schools is due almost entirely to their academic and social selectivity and their ability to exclude unruly and handicapped kids).

Voucher promoters carefully avoid discussing their selectivity, their antipathy to teacher unions, the kinds of sectarian indoctrination that are their main raison d'etre the economic consequences of adopting vouchers (higher taxes and/or cuts in public education, plus escalating transportation costs), and the social consequences of fragmenting school populations and communities along religious, social class, ethnic, and other lines.

We can expect renewed battles in Congress over proposed school prayer amendments to the Constitution. Newt Gingrich failed to bring such an amendment to the floor for a vote during Congress' last term because the religious right could not choose between Rep. Ernest Istook's goofy, dangerous amendment and one offered by powerful House Judiciary Committee chair Henry Hyde (which on close examination proved to be a sneaky back-door attempt to get tax aid for sectarian schools and other religious institutions). School prayer proposals will surely be back this year, and each succeeding school prayer or voucher proposal tends to be tricker and more sophisticated than the last; they seem to evolve and adapt like viruses.

Accompanying these ongoing assaults on church-state separation is a new propaganda offensive against what theoreticians of the theopolitical right call "judicial tyranny," a term of opprobrium used to assail court rulings unfavorable to their agendas. The usual cant goes something like this: "Elitist unelected liberal judges are overturning the will of the people, as expressed at the ballot box or by their elected representatives." Of course, judges are not infallible, but the critics are usually outraged by rulings, such as the one setting aside as unconstitutional the Colorado amendment barring legislation to protect the equal rights of homosexuals or the Hawaii ruling that the state had not adduced compelling reasons for barring homosexual marriages.

The crooners of this grating tune, amplified by talk show hosts, Op-Ed pundits, and the usual chorus of conservative syndicated columnists, overlook some basic facts. Government in America is limited to certain delegated and implied powers, and is subject to anti-majoritarian mechanisms such as the Bill of Rights and our well-established tradition of judicial review. Things like religion, free expression, and fundamental liberties are simply off limits to majorities. That is why we have the Bill of Rights, the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, comparable provisions in state constitutions, and an independent judiciary. Robert Bork's failure to understand this is why the Senate rejected his nomination to the Supreme Court, and rightly so.

In addition to the major battles mentioned above, we will have skirmishes in other areas: continuing attacks on teaching evolution in public schools and attempts to introduce fundamentalist "creationism" under a variety of clever guises; Supreme Court action by summer on state laws barring physician-assisted suicide; a fresh attempt by political and sectarian interests in New York to have the Supreme Court reconsider its 12-year-old ban on sending public teachers to work in parochial schools; endless cont roversies over sectarian displays or activities that appear to have government sponsorship; and ongoing efforts by the Vatican (not supported by most Catholics) to block rational, humane ways of dealing with world overpopulation and consequent environmental degradation and human suffering.

Many supporters of church-state separation complain that they are tired of the struggle and are ready to give up. But these same people would be distressed to no end if their local firefighters got tired of putting out fires and cops got tired of arresting lawbreakers. Those who believe in church-state separation, democracy, the open society, and social justice need to quit bellyaching and lend a hand to those who are on the firing line. Robertson's Christian Coalition, Operation Rescue, the Holy See, and theopolitical demagogues can be stopped and have often been stopped.

In November 1996, Washington state voters defeated two school voucher plans by nearly two to one, while Colorado voters turned down a so-called "parental rights" amendment the religious right was hoping to make a model for the country. And the courts and public opinion remain generally on the side of the Jeffersonian-Madisonian tradition.

Most American Catholics, Protestants, Jews, humanists, and others of good will do not support the theopolitical agenda. We need simply to work together and be strong.

Edd Doerr, executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, is author or co-author of 15 books, most recently The Case Against School Vouchers, available through IFAS.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.