By Robert A. Vella
The very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as part of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, states that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This separation of church and state was intended and repeatedly affirmed to ensure two things for the new nation: 1) that the United States government would be formally secular, and 2) that United States citizens could legally practice their various religions freely and without interference from other religions. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
The “free exercise” of religion applies to all citizens including public officials. Therefore, politicians are fully within their rights to act in accordance with their religious principles. However, public officials are prohibited from enacting, administering, or interpreting law in favor of any religion or in disfavor of any religion. For example, if my religion demands people to grow their hair long while your religion demands people to cut their hair short, then no official U.S. law or act can be used to enforce either religious precept. For such a law or act to be constitutional, it would have to be based on non-religious reasons – like long hair posing a workplace hazard.
Since the rise of Christian fundamentalist political activism during the Reagan administration, evangelicals have attempted to systematically impose their beliefs upon the nation through indirect and subversive means which generally avoided a constitutional confrontation. For example, they have been successful in closing down health care facilities in several states which performed reproductive and abortion services for women. But with the election of Donald Trump, this strategy appears to be shifting to a more direct approach. The following story may be the first serious indication that his administration intends to step towards implementing a Christian theocracy in America.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the Department of Justice is creating a “religious liberty task force.”
Sessions said the task force, co-chaired by Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, Beth Williams, will help the department fully implement the religious liberty guidance it issued last year.
The guidance was a byproduct of President Trump’s executive order directing agencies to respect and protect religious liberty and political speech.
Sessions said on Monday that the task force will “ensure all Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations.”