Kate Farr is a second-year journalism major and writes “Face to Face” for the Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
The United States' First Amendment holds a simple promise — one written some 230 years ago. Within it, American citizens are granted individual freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition and freedom of religion.
The Constitution's promise of religious freedom — including for religious minorities — was established during the birth of a new country. This is what allows every one of us to display and incorporate our faith into our daily lives free of prejudice.
It was a freedom promoted by a group of men who came from varying religious backgrounds.
Our country’s roots are not explicitly Christian. While the United States has a national frame that was created with some biblical principles in mind, it wasn’t meant to be a nation by Christians and for Christians.
The religious landscape of the United States is rapidly changing. While debates on the relationship between the government and religion dates back to the early colonial establishments, the contemporary political environment poses a complex issue.
And we can’t just keep looking at it through the stain-glass windows of our personal faith.
Judicial powers across the political spectrum have kept the government disentangled from religion.
That is, until the past couple of decades.
Religion has become one of the most important cornerstones in winning the race for a seat on the Supreme Court, in the Senate and even as president.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis isn’t a stranger to religious rhetoric, especially in his current campaign for president. The same goes for former Vice President Mike Pence. While both were once supporters of former president Donald Trump, the two have distanced themselves from the past head of state during their pursuit for the presidency in the 2024 election.
DeSantis and Pence have been outspokenly staunch in terms of opposition to abortion access across the country. During DeSantis’ time as governor of Florida, the state passed a six-week abortion ban, which he signed into law. The 2024 GOP runner was “proud” to support pro-life policies in his governing state and across America, according to a statement from his website.
Pence, a self-proclaimed evangelical, born-again Christian, argues restricting abortion is “more important than politics” and calls it the “cause of our time,” according to his interview with the Associated Press.
Many of America’s politicians have brought their religious values and beliefs to the forefront of their campaigns. And in their quest to incorporate their religious zeal in the political sphere, many bring evangelicalism ideology into their decision-making.
When did the government-religion relationship — especially one that links Christian morals to federal- and state-level orders — become so prominent? Many will say that it’s always been this way. It’s not like the founding fathers were completely non-religious in any way, shape or form.
However, even during the birth of the United States, many early leaders pushed for the division of church and state. Thomas Jefferson spoke openly about his commitment to a secular state. In simpler words, he pushed for a country in which citizens can openly hold religious beliefs and participate in religious services, but not seek to influence the direction of the state on matters of national policy.
Our current political atmosphere opposes such secularism.
During his candidacy, John F. Kennedy downplayed his faith. In the 1960s, America was ostensibly anti-Catholic. In fact, it was a factor that led to his loss during the 1960 Democratic Party presidential primary — which was mostly caused by nil support from the Democratic Solid South.
But Kennedy refused to be proclaimed a “Catholic candidate” for president. For instance, during a speech on his religion in Sept. 1960, Kennedy said that “whatever issue may come before [him] as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject,” he would make a decision in accordance to his conscience on the national interest “without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”
The idea of the “Christian Right” — a Christian political faction that is characterized by their strong support of socially conservative policies — didn’t come into full swing until the 1980s. There became an unlikely alliance between Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell, an American Baptist pastor and a conservative televangelist.
Leaders of an emerging Christian Right like Falwell began campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan was a divorced Hollywood actor who, as governor of California, had signed into law one of the nation’s most liberal abortion bills 13 years earlier. Because of this, it was difficult for some evangelical Christians to get behind the former screen star at first.
That is until Reagan became one of the few candidates who gave the Christian Right rhetorical support during his campaign.
As a result, Reagan won in a landslide victory due to the turnout of churchgoers who flocked to the polls, according to The Reagan Library. Reagan did speak about his opposition to abortion and support of teaching creationism in public schools. These issues were strongly advocated by the Christian Right at the time and even now, but Reagan had little tangible success with these religious policies during his terms.
What’s important is that Reagan’s rhetoric is what allowed conservative Christian ideals to thrive in America. And, it was a political spearheading that opened the way for those after him to openly wear their faith.
The current Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court has tipped the scales on long-standing precedents and laws within the past year. While the court once recognized that the First Amendment’s clauses on religion are crucial in protecting religious freedom, it has aided in the fragmenting of the Establishment Clause. This clause protects against government endorsement and imposition of religion, thus crumbling the wall separating church and state.
Judges and potential judges of the Supreme Court typically pledge that their religious, political and personal views do not influence their decision-making. In an ideal world, they only apply the law and Supreme Court precedents.
In a statistical portrait done by Lee Epstein and Eric A. Posner for the Supreme Court Review, it was found that the Supreme Court during the time in which it has been led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has ruled over 81% of the time in favor of religious organizations. That's a 31% increase between all Supreme Court eras since 1953 and the current one.
The findings, which took into account the religious and political party affiliations of all nine justices, pointed to a key factor in the Court’s personnel: most of the contemporary justices are “ideologically conservative and religiously devout.” In fact, five out of the nine justices are openly Catholic and were appointed by Republican presidents.
This paints a significant and stark contrast between our present-day court and the preceding era of justices.
The imbalance has led to a disrespect against foundation Supreme Court precedent, including the draft abortion decision reported on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which subsequently struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022.
Justice Samuel Alito, one of the Catholic and Republican-appointed judges, who wrote for the court majority on the decision, said that the 1973 ruling of Roe v. Wade “must be overruled” due to its reasoning being “egregiously wrong from the start” as the decision has had “damaging consequences.”
Joining in the opinion were the three justices appointed by former President Trump — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — as well as Justice Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush.
As for recent decisions, the court also ruled for Maine parents desiring to use taxpayer dollars towards religious school tuition, as well as for Washington football coach Joseph Kennedy who was suspended from his job for leading students in public prayer.
Even with America’s expansive religious diversity, including unaffiliated and secular, these rulings have stripped away decades of court precedents.
The Supreme Court has given the upper hand to religious petitioners in pursuit of more access, voice and government funding.
These benefits will go to the majority.
While these rulings could have been beneficial in terms of religious pluralism, they are a disadvantage for the minority. The majority in these cases are Christians. Largely, Christian schools were desiring state funding, and a Christian coach was desiring to lead his peers in prayer.
According to the Associated Press, parents of children enrolled in Maine religious schools — including two Roman Catholic-affiliated schools — fought all the way to the Supreme Court, but only one of the high schools actually signed up to participate in the funding.
The reason why more of the religious schools didn’t participate? Maine’s attorney general notified that the schools would have to abide by state antidiscrimination laws — some of which are ones that protect LGBTQ students and staff.
Both Christian schools involved in the lawsuit decided to not apply for the funding for this school year. Coincidentally, both schools have policies that allow for discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
The separation of church and state was meant to be a legacy — a legislative symbol as America pursued a departure from Great Britain on grounds of governmental oppression. That separation was put in place to protect citizen’s ability to think freely, to practice any religion, without interference or preference from government bodies.
Today, we are faced with a religious enthusiasm that seeks faith to serve a foundational role in government.
Politicians and judicial leaders are more heavily interweaving their beliefs into places they don’t belong. There is no religious test to hold office, so why allow religion to intersect with the crucial legislative action that affects every citizen?
They are leading us to a new type of America: one that does not represent or support the religious affiliations of all citizens.
Contact Kate Farr with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.