Not So Hot, Sexy Or Safe

My Day Trapped In Congress’ Parallel Universe

I recently interviewed Columbia University math and physics professor Brian Greene on my “Culture Shocks” radio show about his new book on “parallel universes.” Greene does a great job explaining physics to lay audiences, and his book The Hidden Reality helps readers understand the idea of “multiverses”: alternative realities that in some speculative models could include duplicates of ourselves.

I think I visited one of those parallel universes recently.

In late October, I was invited to testify before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution about the “The State of Religious Liberty in the United States.” The other witnesses were Colby May, an attorney with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, and Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the head of a new advocacy unit of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The remarks of May and Lori left me a tad speechless.

May’s statement mentioned that two of the biggest threats to Christianity today are college “speech codes” and a 1995 court decision from Massachusetts about a school assembly using a sex education program called “Hot, Sexy and Safer.”

Now, I’m not a fan of speech codes because I believe they can curtail legitimate criticism protected by the First Amendment. Speech codes that have been challenged in court (even the most carefully crafted one at Stanford University) have been consistently declared unconstitutional.

In light of that, why would any Christian students think that saying they oppose same-sex marriage would lead to being kicked off campus?

The other matter May mentioned is even weirder. The Massachusetts case is old enough that it is probably more accurate to call it “Lukewarm, Moderately Attractive, and Safer” now. A federal appeals court said that parents’ rights to due process were not violated when their child sat through an assembly on AIDS awareness. The parents had a chance to remove their child from all sex education programs (of which this was only one) but had previously declined to do so.

The bishop’s testimony was similarly peculiar. He suggested that the Catholic Church is being discriminated against because it didn’t get some money from the federal government and because there is no blanket rule giving individuals and institutions the right to refuse to take part in any medical procedure they don’t agree with.

Lori did thank the Republican members for supporting a bill that would permit Catholic hospitals to refuse abortion services to women who needed life-saving emergency surgery. (Current law mandates such emergency interventions.) He groused that various Catholic charities had not gotten some public funds for AIDS work and to help combating sex trafficking but neglected to tell the whole story: The church didn’t get the money because it wasn’t willing to meet the conditions of the programs.

These programs mandated that referrals for condoms and “morning after” drugs be made available to people who may be vulnerable to HIV infection or who might have been sexually assaulted. The government decided it would give taxpayer funding to programs that use what works, not to groups that are wearing ideological or theological blinders.

Committee Chair U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is truly living in a parallel universe.

During opening remarks, Frank noted, “It’s interesting to remind ourselves that one Christopher Columbus was exercising his religious liberty when he went out into the oceans to find the new world and came upon America.” In Franks’ universe, Columbus is a religious liberty hero instead of just a guy looking to make a fast buck by finding a quicker way to India.

I did my best to rebut these wild claims. I noted that America has “a dizzying level of religious freedom,” particularly for majority religious groups.

I then explained the real problems faced by religious minorities: Muslims sued to stop building mosques from Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Manhattan; Wiccan widows told they could not have their sacred symbol, the pentacle, put on memorial markers; atheists told they couldn’t serve in elective office or being denied the right to put up church-state separation displays in a public forum.

I recounted how there are already over 200 exemptions and exceptions for religious groups in federal law and that many of them are unjustified, so we hardly need to create even more that might have serious, indeed potentially fatal, consequences for third parties.

No Republican members asked me a single question.

When I got back to AU, I re-entered the known universe.

Two weeks later, Franks helped lead the charge to “reaffirm” the national motto as “In God We Trust.” He noted on the House floor: “[I]f man is God, then an atheist state is as brutal as the thesis that it rests upon, and there is no longer any reason for us to gather in this place. We should just let anarchy prevail because, after all, we are just worm food.”

What does that mean? Beats me. Maybe if I study The Hidden Reality some more I can figure it out.

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