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In Reason We Trust – Jan, 2019 – Religious privilege in 2019
There will be an assault this year on the secular values on which our Constitution is built.
By Tom Waddell

It seems everyone is predicting what’s going to happen in the coming year, based mostly on their point of view. The abundance of predictions on what Gov. Janet Mills will do lends truth to that. This column’s predictions are based on the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from religion and the separation of church and state.

Some may not notice when these constitutional rights are being violated, particularly when the Trump administration interprets the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause as giving everyone the right to violate another’s constitutional rights.

A demonstrator outside the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2017 holds up a rolling pin in support of baker Jack Phillips during arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, also known as the wedding cake case.

I’ll give an example. The Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple based on his religious beliefs is back in court. Phillips recently refused to make a cake for a transgender person, claiming being transgender also offends his personal religious beliefs. But who could have known? Because the government cannot regulate anyone’s religious beliefs, Phillips becomes the sole arbiter of what his religious beliefs entail.

With that standard, how can there be any limits to what offends personally held religious beliefs?

In Oregon v. Smith (1990), the Supreme Court affirmed the First Amendment restriction on government regulation of religious belief but ruled the government can limit religious practices if doing so violates applicable laws. As then-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, to have no restrictions on one’s behavior because of personally held religious beliefs “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

If religious beliefs become the standard on which to discriminate, those who fought for the law will be back in court, protesting, when a Christian is refused service simply because being Christian offended a shop owner’s religious beliefs.

A woman’s right to choose will continue to be assaulted by the religious right in 2019 as well. It is unlikely the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade; it is more likely the court will let states reduce funding for, and limit access to, women’s health care facilities to achieve the same goals.

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act was upheld in 2006 by the Supreme Court. Six states and Washington, D.C., have implemented similar laws, and more states, including Maine, are considering the same. So with what is now a very conservative Supreme Court, 2019 might be the year conservative religious opponents decide to again press their agenda.

Another religion-based law that just went into effect in Utah reduced the state’s legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05. Republican state Rep. Norm Thurston, a devout Mormon, sponsored the bill, which reflects Mormon teachings on alcohol consumption, targets social drinkers (have two drinks in an hour and you will be legally drunk) and will do nothing to reduce alcohol impaired car accidents.

Matthew Bulger, legislative associate at the American Humanist Association, is concerned that such religiously motivated laws will continue to erode everyone’s constitutional right to freedom from religion and the separation of church and state. “Generally, members of Congress who are more religious tend to be a bit hostile towards legislation that is based on scientific research, either because it conflicts with their faith or because they question the value of knowledge that is gathered outside of their religion,” he said.

One of the groups hostile to legislation based on scientific research is the Freedom Caucus, formed by and, until recently, led by Republican U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, both devout Christians. The Freedom Caucus generally supports the Christian dominion agenda that advocates our secular laws be based on their interpretation of the Bible.

Fortunately, 2019 will see the Congressional Freethought Caucus, formed as an antidote to the Freedom Caucus, continue to defend the ideas on which our secular Constitution was written: reason, science, logic, secular values, and the nation’s central founding idea that grants religious freedom to everyone — the separation of church and state.

Fully 25 percent of Americans are nonbelievers. But because of the negative perception of non-believers, there exists a de facto religious test for public office. Consequently there are only two members of Congress who openly identify as non-religious.

One Freethought Caucus goal is to allow everyone to exercise their religious freedom, including atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers. When that is accomplished all Americans can be truly represented by all state and federal elected positions as the Constitution intended.


Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He can be reached at: president@ffrfmaine.org


Litchfield atheist delivers landmark non-religious invocation to open Maine Senate Feb 2018

It was Thomas Waddell’s second attempt to deliver a ‘secular invocation’ in the Senate chamber a year after opening a session for the House. By Charles Eichacker – Staff Writer

The Senate’s opening invocation is delivered by Tom Waddell, of Litchfield, right, at the Maine State House in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

AUGUSTA — A year after Thomas Waddell opened a session of the Maine House of Representatives by reading a “secular” invocation, he did the same thing in the opposite chamber.

Just past 10 a.m. Thursday, the Litchfield man read a short set of remarks to the few senators who had made it to their space in the south wing of the State House.

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He urged them “to rely on and trust in the collective character, honesty and integrity of your colleagues,” before reading quotations by Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and thanking the lawmakers for their sacrifice.

More unusual, Waddell made no reference to God or Jesus in his brief remarks, as many of the invocations that open sessions of the Maine Legislature do.

That’s because the 70-year-old doesn’t believe in higher powers. He’s an atheist, a fact that was practically on his sleeve Thursday morning.

On the front of his blazer were several gleaming pins, including one in the shape of the letter A, and another that depicted a fish that had grown a pair of legs — a nod to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“When our state legislators take time out at the beginning of the day to reflect on the solemnness and the importance of the job,” he said in an interview after his prepared remarks, “I would rather see (them) rely on something a little more tangible than a supernatural being. They can rely on the very real character, honesty and wisdom of their fellow workers. That’s where real inspiration comes from.”

Waddell, whose personal views run to the left on the political spectrum, is a vocal advocate for the separation of church and state that’s outlined in the U.S. Constitution. He writes columns for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. He also serves as president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Based on his own research, he thinks his remarks Thursday morning could have been the first secular invocation that’s been read before a session of the Maine Senate. He also acknowledged the possibility that other nonreligious remarks might have been read in past sessions and escaped his notice.

Besides encouraging lawmakers to find inspiration in their own colleagues, Waddell also hopes that his invocations have staked out a place for different views and beliefs in state and local government, whether they are religious or not.

Prayers have been read in U.S. Congress since it was formed more than two centuries ago. The right to do so was affirmed in a 2014 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway.

But the court also has indicated that the practice could violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution if it includes a pattern of denigrating other faith systems, whether in the prayers themselves or in the decisions about which prayers to allow.

Waddell delivered his invocation Thursday at the invitation of Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who said in an interview that she has tried to bring an array of people with religious and nonreligious views into the State House.

“The invocation before the Senate is supposed to be open to all people of all faiths, including no faith,” said Bellows, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “That’s why I have invited folks ranging from Tom to the pastor at Hope Baptist Church in Manchester to the (pastor at the) Episcopal Church in Gardiner, because I think that religious liberty is a founding principle in our country.”

Bellows also expressed disappointment that more senators were not able to hear Waddell’s invocation, as Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, convened the daily proceedings more quickly than usual on Thursday morning. Because of that, most senators hadn’t arrived by the time Waddell delivered his remarks.

Thibodeau’s chief of staff, Robert Caverly, said the Senate president was trying to move the proceedings along quickly so that the body would have time to vote on legislation funding Downeast Correctional Facility for another year.

It wasn’t the first time Thibodeau’s actions affected Waddell in his mission to read a secular invocation before the Senate.

Last May, the two disagreed when Thibodeau canceled a reading that Waddell had been scheduled to deliver. At the time, Waddell argued that Thibodeau was not comfortable with the nonreligious nature of his remarks. In response, Thibodeau suggested that Waddell had been “verbally aggressive” with a staff member of the Senate and had misrepresented his interaction with her.

This week, though, Waddell said that he understood the pressing nature of the matters before the Senate and harbored no grudge that the whole Senate hadn’t been able to hear his invocation.

“That’s just life; it happened,” he said. “The closing of the (jail) up in Machias, they’ve got to get that done today.”

After delivering his invocation, he even received a compliment from an unlikely source.

Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, approached Waddell and told him, “We may not share the same beliefs,” Cushing said, but added that he appreciated the remarks.

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