One hundred and forty-eight years ago, Myra Bradwell brought a case to the United States Supreme Court after the Illinois Supreme Court refused her application to the state bar based on her sex. The state court claimed in its opinion that when it comes to granting law licenses, “[I]t was with not the slightest expectation that this privilege should be extended to women.” Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court upheld the state court’s decision, with Justice Joseph Bradley writing in a concurring opinion, “[T]he paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator” (“Bradwell v. Illinois”, 1873).
U.S. residents, especially those of us who reject the concept of a supreme being, view Bradwell v. Illinois as one of the worst court decisions in United States history (Pacific Legal Foundation, 2021). However, it turns out that the Abrahamic God continues to play a role in our civic lives as well: that of supreme legislator. Take the subject of abortion. Republican politicians have previously offered secular rationales for their pro-life fanaticism, claiming that abortions harm women, that the medical community demeans them, or most recently, and that abortion patients fill hospital beds needed for COVID-19 patients (Boston Review, 2020). But now, with the Supreme Court on their side, Republicans no longer have to be subtle about their religion-driven mission to outlaw abortion. When Governor Greg Abbott of Texas signed S.B. 8 in May 2021, which in effect bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, he claimed afterward, “[O]ur creator endowed us with the right to life, and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas we work to save those lives” (The New York Times, 2021). Two years ago, when Alabama governor Kay Ivey also signed a bill that criminalized nearly all abortions in the state, she called the measure “[a] testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God” (Associated Press, 2019). Both of these examples are sufficient enough to raise the question for those of us who are vehemently opposed to the gradual theocratization of America: Who the hell allowed God to re-enter legislative and judicial chambers throughout the country? To be frank, we all did.
Our complacency and inaction on the issue of separating church and state has unintentionally turned us into enablers of those eager to impose their religious beliefs on a country founded in direct opposition to such action. Along with the addition of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance during the Eisenhower administration and Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that all citizens are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence, many contemporary issues involving church ideology and state policy do not receive the necessary amount of backlash from Americans (Brookings Institution, 2017). Regarding the aforementioned S.B. 8 bill in Texas, the public has barely noticed that four of the Supreme Court’s six Roman Catholic justices plus an Episcopalian fifth allowed an overtly unconstitutional law to remain in place while pending appeal, clearly due to personal beliefs rather than legal precedent (The New York Times, 2021). Republican presidents who ran on a party platform calling for the appointment of judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade nominated each of the five previously mentioned justices. Moreover, those presidents most certainly considered the religious background of their nominees so that they could potentially get the conservative Christian beliefs, held by many of their voters, justified through legislation and court decisions.
Religion is one of American society’s last taboos. Nowadays, most Americans can openly speak about sexual orientation and gender nonconformity, topics that were once considered too intimate. However, they have yet to pinpoint an effective way to question the role of religion in civic life without swarms of anti-religious-freedom accusations. An abortion case in Mississippi, referred to as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, will be argued in front of the Supreme Court in the coming weeks. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted nearly 80 briefs in support of the state’s defense for their own anti-abortion bill; well over half of these briefs are from organizations or individuals with religious identities, all western, and the rest have affiliations with the religious right (supremecourt.gov, 2021).
This should not be surprising. What reason other than religious doctrine is there for overturning a decision made nearly 50 years ago that freed women from the tragic moment of deciding between a back-alley abortion or forced motherhood? According to a recent poll, about one-third of Americans want the Court to overturn Roe v. Wade (Gallup, 2021), and its fate will be left to the whims of Republican politicians and judges elected by the aforementioned minority. Therefore, it is up to the rest of us to call out those who decree God as their legislative partner.
In this country, the clash between church and state is not a new story. In 1984, when New York Governor Mario Cuomo, an Italian Catholic, debated the Catholic Church in regard to the state’s spending on abortions for economically disadvantaged women, he said, “[T]here is no church teaching that mandates the best political course for making our belief everyone’s rule” (University of Notre Dame, 1984), indicating a divide between his private and political beliefs. Similarly, former President John F. Kennedy repeatedly mentioned his separation of political and religious identities during the 1960 presidential campaign. In one debate with opponent Richard Nixon, Kennedy attempted to reassure Protestant voters about their negative attitudes toward his Catholic identity and beliefs, saying, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me” (NPR, 2007). As the United States inches closer to becoming a theocracy, we need voices like these now more than ever. Instead of remaining complacent, American leaders must speak up about the hypocrisy of our country’s initial opposition to an establishment of religion.