The terrifying rash of state abortion bans spreading throughout the United States has captured the nation’s attention, but in order to stop this trend, those who are fighting back must also focus on its deeper cause: the ever-crumbling wall of separation between church and state.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from imposing one set of religious beliefs, or religion at all, on others, but that’s undeniably what these bans are doing.
“This legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God,” Gov. Kay Ivey said after signing Alabama’s uncompromising abortion ban into law on May 15. Explaining the ban’s rationale, Alabama Sen. Clyde Chambliss asserted: “I believe that if we terminate the life of an unborn child, we are putting ourselves in God’s place.” In Missouri, Rep. Holly Rehder expressed her support for that state’s abortion ban, which, like Alabama’s, lacks a rape or incest exception: “To stand on this floor and say, ‘How can someone look at a child of rape or incest and care for them?’ I can say how we can do that. We can do that with the love of God.”
These abortion bans are but one piece of a larger Christian nationalist effort sweeping America now. Last year, more than 800 state legislators across the country received the 150-page playbook of Project Blitz, a national initiative to codify a far-right evangelical Christian America. Project Blitz’s strategy is to pass an increasingly ambitious set of state laws, starting with bills that require prominently displaying “In God We Trust” and establishing Bible classes in public schools, and escalating to laws that would permit religion to be used to justify discrimination, particularly against women, LGBTQ people and religious minorities. More than 50 Project Blitz bills have already been introduced in 2019, from Virginia to Alaska and many states in between.
President Donald Trump is advancing this same agenda in order to pander to his white evangelical voting base, 81 percent of whom gave him their vote in 2016. Last summer, Trump told a group of evangelical Christians he invited to the White House for a dinner in their honor: “The support you’ve given me has been incredible, but I really don’t feel guilty because I have given you a lot back, just about everything I promised. And as one of our great pastors just said, ‘Actually, you’ve given us much more, sir, than you promised.’ And I think that’s true, in many respects.”
This year alone, the Trump administration has already allowed federally funded South Carolina foster care agencies to turn away prospective parents and volunteers who do not share their religion (evangelical Christian) and issued a rule allowing all health care providers to deny even lifesaving care to patients based on their religious views. These actions come on the heels of the rule the administration finalized in November that permits employers and universities to deny women birth control coverage guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act on religious or moral grounds.
These days, some claim these policies that license discrimination are really just about protecting the “religious freedom” of conservative Christians. But the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution is not meant to be weaponized. If the government makes me bear the cost of your “religious freedom,” then it prefers your religion to mine. And the First Amendment forbids the government from playing favorites. The Trump administration is undermining, not bolstering, true religious freedom.
Today’s attacks on church-state separation are putting the lives and freedom of countless women at risk. They also are threatening LGBTQ people, religious minorities and religious freedom for all, a seminal and foundational feature of America.
It’s time to fight for church-state separation like your life, freedom and country depend on it. They do.
Rachel Laser is the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a 72-year-old national nonprofit fighting to keep religion and government separate. This column was originally published in the Chicago Tribune.