Yesterday’s oral arguments at the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of Montana’s ban on direct state aid for religious education barely registered in a media environment saturated by impeachment news.
But there’s big trouble ahead if, as expected, the justices invalidate the ban.
As Andrew Seidel noted yesterday on RD, this would mark a long-sought big win on the scorecard of the well-organized and decades-old movement to upend traditional understandings of separation of church and state. Not just another crack in Jefferson’s “wall” but more like a six-lane highway right through it.
Here’s why. Steadily advancing deference to religion, whether through “conscience” clauses or “religious exemptions,” already opens the door to fairly blatant employment discrimination. Trump and his enablers have pushed hard in the direction of such deference, as part of their fervid ongoing courtship of the white evangelical vote.
Meanwhile, most courts have ruled that religiously-affiliated institutions like schools, but also hospitals and others, can’t use religious grounds to fire (or not hire) people whose functions are purely secular in nature; e.g., groundskeepers or clerks. But the courts have also said that these institutions are perfectly free to discriminate when it comes to staff who perform “ministerial” or quasi-ministerial functions. Teachers and professors in religious schools certainly fall into this latter category, especially as so many of them must subscribe to institutional mission statements under which they effectively pledge to uphold church values.
You can see where this is going. First we open the door to direct state aid, thus (in all likelihood) greatly expanding the reach of religious schools, most of them run by people who are distinctly hostile to any whiff of sexual deviation or even mild feminist orientation. Then we open the door to permitting these same schools to discriminate in the hiring and firing of teachers, guidance counselors, and others.
This isn’t just the undoing of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the undoing of the Secular Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. Some won’t mourn the loss. Many won’t even notice. But those who put bishops in the same despised category as kings back in the day knew what they were doing.