Assessing The ‘Morning After’

Times Will Be Tough, But Let’s Not Abandon Ship

One of the big movies of 1973 was “The Poseidon Adventure.” It was the tale of a luxury liner that was turned upside down by a tidal wave. A song for the film’s soundtrack, performed by Maureen McGovern, was a huge pop hit as well. It had a line: “There’s got to be a morning after.” 

For some of the occupants of the good ship Poseidon, that turned out not to be true. Nevertheless, the song kept creeping into my head the night of the mid-term elections. Americans United doesn’t look at elections to count up the number of Democrats and Republicans. However, we are acutely aware of the records of incumbents and candidates in regard to issues of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. 

Some real champions of the cause were defeated that night, including U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, who represented President George W. Bush’s home district and who was a ferocious defender of the Constitution. Also losing was Ohio’s Gov. Ted Strickland, who reformed the “faith-based” office in his state and even openly criticized the Religious Right when he was in Congress in the 1990s. 

All three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices up for “judicial retention” were rejected for reappointment, after being targeted by the Religious Right in the wake of a ruling striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

On a more positive note, all three Senate candidates – in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada – who literally denied that separation of church of state is in the Constitution were defeated.

My “morning after” election night was quite interesting. It started early at the U.S. Supreme Court where oral argument was being heard in a case involving the constitutionality of an Arizona tax-credit scheme designed primarily to fund religious schools. 

The plan in question gives a dollar-for-dollar credit to people who contribute up to $1,000 to one of several “charities” whose sole function is to give “scholarships” to students who want to go to private schools. 

Most of these voucher-granting groups require that if a parent accepts any tuition funding for a child, the child must agree to go to a specific religious school. It is a shameless subsidy for Catholic and evangelical Protestant education in the state.

The Obama administration had joined virtually every Religious Right legal group in the country in supporting this blatantly unconstitutional statute. The acting solicitor general – who succeeded Elena Kagan after she joined the high court – was given a block of time to articulate the Obama view. (This may have been a good thing for Arizona, whose own lawyer gave a rather uninspired performance.)

To make matters worse, the solicitor general not only argued in favor of the program, he also insisted that no Arizona taxpayer should have “standing,” the legal right to sue, to protect the public fisc from unconstitutional action.

Once the argument ended, I quickly dashed outside to make a few brief comments to the assembled TV cameras and reporters outside.

I couldn’t stay at the court long because there was more to be done on my “morning after.” I had agreed to discuss the election results with Sally Quinn, the editor of The Washington Post’s popular “On Faith” Web site.

The site is actually a multi-media experience, and I was doing a televised bit. We discussed the similarities and differences between the old Religious Right and the new Tea Party movement, the likelihood of a new push by the incoming congressional leadership on hot-button social issues, and the way in which the Obama administration was handling church-state matters.

Quinn also asked me to join the site’s roster of bloggers, which I have agreed to do.

On the second “morning after” the mid-terms, I attended a meeting of the Americans United-chaired Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, in part to bid a farewell to our legislative director, Aaron Schuham, who was leaving to rejoin the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. 

Watching the group reminded me that there have been times in recent history when the Congress was even more hostile to church-state separation than it is likely to be next month. I recall when the Senate was more deeply divided, and the president was, well, George W. Bush. 

You might remember that Bush began his presidency by declaring the faith-based initiative one of his three top priorities. You might also remember that the Coalition, with Aaron’s leadership, stopped Congress from approving a single piece of legislation to enact Bush’s goals. Bush was left to try to expand government funding of religion entirely through executive orders and regulatory changes. 

This was just one example of daunting challenges being met with the coordinated opposition that we and our sister organizations ginned up for eight straight years (and that we continue to use since the current administration has left many Bush-era policies governing the faith-based initiative intact).

That meeting was an important reminder that there are “years after” these particular mornings. They are years that we have to continue to battle those who would deny us, our children and our grandchildren, the fruits of the tree of religious liberty planted hundreds of years ago.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.