Church-State Update, Vol. 29, No. 5

Edd Doerr

‘Pro-life’ Terror Assassination

The terrorist assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, on May 31 was not just a tragedy for the courageous physician who was one of the very few who provided rarely needed reproductive health-care procedures for many women. It was also a vicious attack on the rights of women to appropriate medical care in problem pregnancies, a blow against women’s freedom of conscience, and an act of intimidation against health providers who disagree with the patriarchal fundamentalist ideology that equates embryos and early fetuses with persons.

President Barack Obama is to be commended for pulling back appreciably with regard to the annual National Day of Prayer, observed this year on May 7. He limited his activity to a low-key proclamation, as required by law. The National Day of Prayer was originated in 1952 by Congress as a manifestation of cold-war thinking. Unlike his immediate predecessor, who made a big deal of the event by inviting selected Christian and Jewish leaders to the White House East Room, Obama did nothing of the sort.

Religious Right big-wheels James and Shirley Dobson, who have taken over the event for transparently theo-political purposes, expressed disappointment that Obama and his administration took no part in their game. Shirley Dobson objected to Obama’s recent remark that “Americans do not consider themselves a Christian nation.” She and other fundamentalists choose to ignore the secular nature of our Constitution and our 1797 treaty with Tripoli, ratified by the Senate and very publicly approved by President John Adams, which states, “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”

Brent Walker, the lawyer and minister who heads the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty in Washington, had this to say: “I have long contended that Congress’s official designation and the President’s predictable proclamation of a National Day of Prayer is misguided. It is not government’s job to tell the American people what, where, or when to pray.” He noted that presidents Jefferson and Madison, the main architects of our principle of separation of church and state, opposed such government dabbling with religion.

One conservative columnist jumped into the controversy by noting that the preambles to all of the state constitutions contain references to a generic deity. It might be noted, however, that forty-eight of these preambles date from the days of slavery and later racial segregation and from a time when the female portion of our population was denied the right to vote. It should be remembered that our Constitution’s only references to religion are the Article VI prohibition of religious tests for public office and mandatory oaths of office.

From Hither . . .

Congress has terminated the school-voucher plan that a Republican-dominated Congress imposed on the District of Columbia during Bush’s term. The divide is largely along party lines: Democrats against, Republicans for. During the battle, I pointed out in the Washington Post: “Millions of Americans have rejected vouchers or their variants in some twenty-five statewide referendums by an average proportion of 2 to 1.”

In the midst of the fight in Congress over the D.C. school-voucher plan, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued a report supporting vouchers. As I pointed out in Education Week on April 22, the report “offers nothing new, but simply reiterates the same tired old line: ‘Give us your money, go away, and shut up.’” I pointed out that the report advises that “voucher laws and programs should take vows of silence regarding participation in religious instruction or activities” and that “school inputs and operations (such things as teacher qualification, admissions policies, and discipline procedures) ought not be further regulated by government.” In other words, I concluded, “Fordham wants taxpayers to blindly fund private schools that practice divisive forms of selectivity, discrimination, and indoctrination that would not be permitted in public schools.” The report’s main author, Chester Finn, is the guy who told a school-voucher conference at Catholic University several years ago (I was there) that he was ashamed to be Jewish because most Jewish organizations opposed school vouchers. Fortunately, Rabbi David Saperstein was there to respond appropriately.

On March 25, Arizona’s Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the state’s small school-voucher plan. A week earlier, however, a state appeals court upheld a business tax-credit scheme to aid private schools.

The Texas House voted 122 to 23 to ban any public funds from being used for school vouchers. In March a voucher bill was defeated in Georgia.

Milwaukee’s school-voucher plan, mistakenly upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998, has been found by a study released in March to produce no major improvement over the city’s public schools. More than 80 percent of the city’s 120 voucher schools are faith-based.

Ronald Reagan began formal U.S. diplomatic relations with the Holy See (based in Vatican City, a microstate inside Rome created by Mussolini in 1929) in the 1980s. Efforts to block this controversial move in Congress failed. A lawsuit charging that diplomatic relations with a church violate the First Amendment and also constitute government preference for a single religion was rejected by the Supreme Court for “lack of standing,” a device we overcame a few years later in the Second Circuit (Isaac Asimov and Corliss Lamont were among the plaintiffs) in a challenge to U.S. tax aid to faith-based schools in other countries. Now the Obama administration is in a bind over naming a new envoy. For the last twenty-five years, every U.S. envoy to the Holy See has been Catholic, which seems to violate the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for public office. According to former Holy See envoy Ray Flynn, the Holy See has already turned up its nose at at least three names of possible envoys.

In March, the Food and Drug Administration was ordered by New York Federal District Judge Edward R. Korman to make the Plan B “morning after” contraceptive pill available without prescription to women as young as seventeen. The Bush administration had allowed Plan B only with a prescription until 2006.

Former conservative Rep. Marilyn Musgrove (R-Colo.) was named in March to head a new program to unseat pro-choice members of Congress.

. . . and Yon

Australia’s government continues to fund faith-based and other private schools. Although Australia’s constitution has a church-state separation clause, the country’s supreme court declined to enforce it in response to a 1981 lawsuit I helped originate. Our side lost 6 to1.

Spain is trying to further liberalize its abortion-rights law, but the Catholic Church is opposing.

Fundamentalists in the Netherlands parliament are urging that creationism be taught in public schools along with evolution.

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.


‘Pro-life’ Terror Assassination The terrorist assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, on May 31 was not just a tragedy for the courageous physician who was one of the very few who provided rarely needed reproductive health-care procedures for many women. It was also a vicious attack on the rights of women to appropriate …

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