Church-State Update, Vol. 29, No. 1

Edd Doerr

Quelle Horreur!

Que passé en la terre de laïcité? On a visit to France in September, Pope Benedict XVI called on the country to relax its rather strict separation of church and state—laïcité, or secularism—which other countries in western Europe increasingly try to emulate. The “pontiff” seems to be playing the same card as U.S. fundamentalists, who, as New York Times correspondent Rachel Donadio put it, “see themselves as a persecuted minority facing a secular hegemony.” Benedict, as Donadio writes, “is looking to reconquer Europe, if not in numbers, then at the political table.”

Not so fast. The United States invented church-state separation in the late eighteenth century precisely to prevent the sort of church-state unions that had proved so disastrous for a millennium and a half in Europe. And France initiated laïcité in 1905 for the same reason. Western Europeans are unlikely to fall into the old clericalist traps again.

Mon Dieu! Look at what ees ’appening en France aujourd’hui! According to The New York Times on September 30, increasing numbers of Muslim parents are sending their kids to Catholic schools (recipients of substantial government largesse, thanks to President Charles de Gaulle after World War II) to avoid the secular atmosphere of French public schools. Some Catholic schools allow Muslim head scarves, prohibited in public schools. Defenders of laïcité oppose such leniency on the ground that it could encourage other special requests and anti-Western values like the oppression of women.

Lone Star Looniness

Poor Texas. When the state’s legislature passed a bill to allow optional classes about the Bible in public schools, it clearly intended that the State Board of Education (SBOE) would create standards to make sure the classes are run properly. The SBOE, however, as veteran educator Laura Ewing wrote in the Beaumont Examiner on September 26, “voted to ignore the legislature’s instructions. They instead adopted general guidelines that leave the state’s more than one thousand school districts without the help they need to create good classes that respect the Bible and keep them out of court. That’s absolutely irresponsible.”

Even before the law was passed, several districts adopted textbooks that notoriously favor biblical fundamentalism, as the Texas Freedom Network has documented. The basic problems: there are no suitable textbooks available, educators and scholars cannot agree on what should or could be taught about religion in public schools, and teachers are simply not trained or certified to teach about religion or the Bible in a way that is constitutional and educationally sound.

Then there is SBOE chair Don McLeroy—a dentist and presumably a college grad—who declared in September that “If science is limited to only natural explanations but some natural phenomena are actually the result of supernatural causes then science would never be able to discover that truth—not a very good position for science. Defining science to allow for this possibility is just common sense. . . . Then the supernaturalist will be just as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena.” And the guy is serious!

Planned Parenthood Targeted

Planned Parenthood is the target of a massive propaganda campaign, aimed not only at discrediting the women’s health-care provider but also at blocking federal funding for the respected organization’s important work. Having gotten minimal traction from claims that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers have killed 49 million “babies” since 1973, the campaign, as exemplified by an August 25 editorial in the Unification Church-connected ultraconservative Washington Times, is now charging that Planned Parenthood “targets blacks.”

It is true that women of color have disproportionately more abortions than white women, but this is due primarily to the greater extent of black poverty and disadvantage.

PP’s critics, however, cannot explain away the remarks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966 on the occasion of his receiving an award from Planned Parenthood: “There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.”

Yes, Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide a broad range of women’s health-care services, are often located in urban centers. That is where the need is greatest.

Viva España libre!

As the United States is pulling back from church-state separation, Spain—once the land of the Inquisition and Generalissimo Franco—is moving forward. Having legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, following the example of the Netherlands and Belgium, Spain’s parliament is likely to soon further liberalize the country’s abortion law. While already fairly liberal, the law is currently unevenly administered in Spain’s seventeen semi-autonomous regions.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


Quelle Horreur! Que passé en la terre de laïcité? On a visit to France in September, Pope Benedict XVI called on the country to relax its rather strict separation of church and state—laïcité, or secularism—which other countries in western Europe increasingly try to emulate. The “pontiff” seems to be playing the same card as U.S. …

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