About Religious Liberty: Chapter 6

Social-Religious Issues and Government

Most Americans are aware that the U.S. Constitution forbids local, state, and federal governments from establishing a national religion and no religious group can speak for the government. However, as noted previously, religion does work its way into social/political and governmental issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. On numerous occasions, many Americans have tried to influence government policy by sharing their religious views and opinions—whether pro or con—regarding pending or existing laws on these issues.

Perhaps one of the most contentious religion-government controversies is abortion. Aborting an embryo (from conception to nine weeks in a pregnancy) or a fetus (the developing human in the womb) has been legal nationally since 1973. That year the Supreme Court of the United States struck down severely restrictive state abortion laws in the now-famous Roe v. Wade case. The High Court ruled that the state laws were unconstitutional because they did not protect a woman’s right to privacy. In the Roe v. Wade decision, the Court held that during the first three months of pregnancy, a woman had the right to an abortion for any reason. Over the next trimester (three months), states could pass laws regulating abortion to protect a woman’s health. Finally, during the last three months of a pregnancy, when the fetus can live outside the womb, states may pass laws to protect the fetus by prohibiting abortion except to preserve the health or life of the pregnant woman.

People who support the right of women to choose to abort a fetus refer to themselves as pro-choice. They argue that a woman’s right to choose an abortion should not be limited by any governmental or religious authority. In addition, abortion proponents insist that pregnant women will resort to unsafe illegal abortions if there is no legal option. Although many religious groups do not officially state their views about abortion, members who support legal abortion include Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, United Methodists Presbyterians (USA), Unitarian Universalists (as well as well as other liberal religious groups).

Those opposed to abortion call themselves pro-life and contend that personhood begins at conception. On that basis, opponents declare that abortion not only causes suffering to an unborn child but in reality kills an innocent human being. Among the religious opponents are Assemblies of God, Catholics, Lutherans (Missouri Synod), and Southern Baptists.

The two sides on abortion issues frequently engage in political activities to change or support abortion policies and laws. They often face off in public protests or rallies. At times over the decades since 1973, these confrontations have been violent and even deadly.

On June 26, 2014, the SCOTUS ruled on a First Amendment right that involved antiabortion protesters in Eleanor McCullen et al. v. Coakley, Attorney General of Massachusetts et al. The decision rescinded a Massachusetts law that set the area where protesters could gather outside an abortion clinic. That legal limit was a response to violence at reproductive health care clinics and was meant to protect not only providers but also clients who were harassed and sometimes physically attacked. The “buffer zone,” as it was called, made it a crime to stand within thirty-five feet of an entrance or driveway to any reproductive health care facility. In a unanimous decision, SCOTUS ruled that the buffer zone was overly broad and limited free speech in public places like sidewalks that traditionally have been open for speech activities; thus the law was unconstitutional. The government’s ability to regulate speech in such locations is “very limited,” the High Court declared. But its decision did not prevent states from passing less restrictive laws to protect people entering and leaving abortion clinics.

In November 2018, however, two states passed legislation to restrict abortions. A West Virginia amendment to the state’s constitution says “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.” In Alabama an amendment to the state’s constitution effectively gives a fetus the same rights as a person who has been born.” The amendment also declares that the state “does not protect the right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”

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For decades, people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) have struggled for the same rights granted to heterosexual people. Frequently, they have been harassed or physically attacked and even murdered by those who hate their sexuality. Undoubtedly, there have been changes over the years regarding the rights of LGBTQ people, but the path has been long and grueling.

A gay rights organization was organized in Chicago, Illinois, in 1924, but few other groups appeared until the 1950s and 1960s. One example was the Daughters of Bilitis, established in San Francisco in 1955. It became a national lesbian organization in 1956. Transgender groups formed in the following years. In June 1969, Stonewall Riots occurred, named for the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Police raided the bar and patrons, neighbors, employees, and friends of customers fought back. Riots and protests continued for days. That confrontation led to a widespread gay rights movement for equal rights and acceptance. By the 1970s, legislators in Dade County, Florida, passed a civil rights ordinance making discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal in Dade County. But a Christian fundamentalist group headed by singer Anita Bryant campaigned against the law. A special election was held and the ordinance was overturned

Some progress for gay rights came about from the 1980s through the 1990s. In the 2000s, states began to recognize and legalize same-sex unions. On June 26, 2015 SCOTUS ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriages, thus were legal nationwide. Yet, that has not stopped religious organizations and people of various religious beliefs from protesting that ruling and deliberately offending LGBTQ groups and members. In spite of the law, some businesses have refused to serve same-sex couples and blatantly publicized their actions via print, electronic, and TV news interviews.

Marriage is only one part of the struggle for gay rights. During early U.S. wars, homosexuals were banned from the military or tossed out if they had found a way to serve. The U.S. Department of Defense issued a complete ban in 1982, saying “homosexuality was incompatible with military service.” When former President Bill Clinton took office, he initiated a policy in the early 1990s of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allowed homosexuals to serve in the military if they remained silent about their sexual orientation. Attitudes changed, however, and so did DOD policy. By 2010, most enlisted military saw nothing wrong with homosexuality and would not be bothered by serving with those they know to be gay. What appeared to be a final solution to LGBTQ rights was the 2016 repeal of a ban on military personnel who are openly transgender. However, in 2017, Donald J. Trump ordered a ban on transgender people enlisting in military service. The order prompted lawsuits from LGBTQ organizations and district courts blocked the policy from going into effect. In 2018, the Trump administration urged SCOTUS to intervene and “fast-track” a decision on the legality of the ban. Meantime, transgender people already in the military continue to serve, but many keep their identity secret, fearing they will be discharged.

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Throughout much of U.S. history, laws have banned various groups of immigrants from entering the country because of their culture, color, or religion. Many immigrants have faced discrimination and persecution. In addition, millions of Africans were forced immigrants, brought to the United States as slaves.

Over many decades, federal laws have restricted who is officially allowed to immigrate. In 1790, the Naturalization Act, for example, required immigrants to be “free white persons” of “good moral character” and to live in the United States for two years before becoming citizens. The act was revised several times, and by 1892, immigrants could become citizens after five years of residency.

Fast forward to the 2000s, and large numbers of Americans have been advocating for laws that allow immigrants without legal permits to become citizens through what is called a pathway to citizenship. But conflicts have been ongoing and, in fact, have increased as Central Americans seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries wait at the U.S. southern border for entry. But Donald Trump has continually argued against immigrants during his presidential campaign and since his election in 2016, blustering and spewing lies about them. He is supported by many evangelicals who supposedly follow the biblical teachings of Jesus, some even claiming Trump was “chosen by God.”

In a prime time speech tonight January 8, 2019, Trump will repeat his lies about immigrants and his unsubstantiated claim that a protective barrier on the Mexican border is needed to keep out terrorists.

I will turn off the TV.

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