Five months ago at the White House, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty, announcing that “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.” Intended to appeal to his white Evangelical voter base, this sweeping declaration of “religious freedom” has acted as a policy guideline for the Trump administration and as a justification for rolling back the civil rights protections of women and the LGBT community.
In past months, the Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era protections that allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, implemented a transgender military ban, declared its support for a 20-week abortion ban and filed a Supreme Court brief siding with a baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple.
Most recently, on October 6, President Trump overturned an Obama-era Affordable Care Act regulation, which requires most employers to provide their employees with free birth control coverage. Employers may now opt out without notifying the government if they have a religious or moral objection, opening the door for millions of women to lose coverage.
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President Trump’s latest announcement reflects a disturbing trend in his flagrant disregard for the separation of church and state — a concept that has served as a cornerstone of American democracy since the nation’s founding. As children of the Enlightenment, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams favored science and reason over religion, and recognized the dangers that might ensue if political leaders used religion to their own ends.
In 1786, Jefferson stated in his Virginia bill for religious freedom, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” This basic concept of creating a wall between church and state is codified in our Constitution by the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, and has been upheld by Supreme Court precedent in various cases.
Looking to history, our Founders had good cause to be wary of allowing theology to influence politics. Religious empires dominated the world for nearly two thousand years, maintaining their power by persecuting minority groups under the pretense of a divine mission from God (think the Crusades and the European religious wars in the 15th and 16th centuries). And while we might think of these problems as foreign to the United States, we would be sadly mistaken — both segregation in the Jim Crow South and the recent religious freedom laws passed in Republican states have leaned on religious beliefs to justify legal discrimination.
From the Moral Majority of the 1980s to the Tea Party today, religion has been pushing its way into conservative politics for years, and the actions of the Trump administration remind us how dangerous the consequences can be for the rights of minority groups. When theology is made a legitimate basis for public policy, key components of our democracy, such as the notion of equality and the importance of fact-based argument, become secondary to the perceived will of God (and the two are often at odds).
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And when the state privileges one religion, or even a particular interpretation of that religion, the civil rights of those who subscribe to another religion or a different interpretation of it are inherently put at risk. In other words, religious freedom can result in a loss of freedom for others.
If the Trump administration continues to erode the separation of church and state, the rights of women and the LGBT community will be put in peril. Already, the ACLU has announced plans to file a lawsuit against the repeal of the birth control mandate on the grounds that it violates the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.
Allowing Trump’s behavior to be normalized can be a slippery slope. What comes next? Will he allow employers to refuse equal pay to men and women on religious grounds? Will he follow the lead of some Republican state legislatures and allow businesses to refuse to serve same-sex couples? Disturbing as these thoughts are, they seem plausible — but they do not reflect American values.
Whenever religious freedom is in question, the rights of our fellow citizens must always win out. Our democracy and our commitment to equality are at stake.
Natalie Spievack ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and economics.