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Like me, readers who have been following such things are likely overwhelmed by the number and gravity of Supreme Courtdecisions the last two weeks. Let me address one theme that appears to run through many of them: religion and the court rulings.
The “Right to Life” is often described as a “God given right,” by which its supporters mean the right to life not of every living thing (they don’t recognize stinging insects as having that right) but of all human life. God, they insist, defines as human life every developmental stage from conception to birth. I have two problems with that. The first problem is this: not all religions, not even all Christian religions, understand God that way. The Supreme Court’s decision did not directly mention God; its decision was couched more along the lines of which jurisdiction should have precedenceregarding a supposed right to life: federal or state? They came down on the side of states having jurisdiction. Many states, including South Carolina, then weigh in with the religious “God-given rights” argument. Because of the variation in beliefs regarding God and what human life means, it seems to me a clear violation of the separation of Church and State for those on the Right to Life side to use this argument, while either not knowing or ignoring the fact that many other religions disagree: their own religion defines God-recognized human life as conception to birth. Legislatures have the authority to enact laws binding on everybody, regardless of their individual religions; but if the fundamental legislative argument rests on the legislators’ personal religious beliefs, they are indirectly establishing their own religion. There is room for debate here, debate separate from discussions of what, exactly, God wants the Legislature to do. What are the views of not only the religious majority but also of the various religious minorities? Should religious minorities not also have a voice, perhaps even a deciding voice, in their own conception of what God wants them to do? Racial justice arguments taught us thatmajorities don’t usually need the protection of government, but minorities certainly do. Our concept of freedom rests in large part on protection of those minorities, religious as well as racial, from the tyranny of the majority.
The second Supreme Court decision based primarily on religion decided this past week is about the right of a faculty member (in this case, a football coach) to lead his students in a voluntary prayer. Anybody who has played on a team, much less participated in a school class, recognizes that the word “voluntary”does not really hold water, given the power differential between the teacher and the student. But how about the teacher’s right? Would those who argue for that teacher’s right to hold a voluntary publicprayer each week be in place, if the teacher were starting off each prayer with the loud declaration that “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet”? And what if he (or she) cited the Quran during prayers, ignoring or even overriding verses in the Christian Bible that were contrary to the Quran? Would there be any attempt to forbid that teacher from encouraging students to join in those prayers, as a matter of routine? I suspect the answer is in the affirmative, and that the Supreme Court, among others, would support such a stance. In this case, the prayers were Christian in a predominantly Christian background; but surely the decision has made inevitable instances of less popular or even imaginaryreligions being espoused publicly by faculty just waiting for the chance. It’s coming, you can count on it.