New Sermon audio – Because I said so – with Rev. David Helfer
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This opinion piece was posted on the Providence Journal’s website on August 30.
My Turn: Kavanaugh Wrong about Religious Freedom
By David L. Helfer
For Rhode Islanders, religious freedom is in our DNA. Roger Williams founded the city of Providence in 1644 as the first place where all people could choose how to worship — or not to worship at all. In Rhode Island, people of many faiths, including Baptists, Jews, Quakers, and atheists, lived side by side as equals. And Williams, even before Thomas Jefferson, called for a “wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
There’s no doubt that the separation of church and state in Rhode Island served as a beacon for the rest of the nation and an example eventually adopted by the Founding Fathers in the U.S. Constitution.
Now more than ever, our country needs the wisdom of Roger Williams. The U.S. Senate will soon consider President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, who poses a dangerous threat to our core American and Rhode Island value of separation of church and state.
In a lecture last year (“From the Bench: The Constitutional Statesmanship of Chief Justice William Rehnquist”), Kavanaugh noted that Rehnquist, whom he greatly admires, criticized the idea of a wall of separation between religion and government. The former chief justice said it was “based on bad history” and “useless as a guide to judging.” Kavanaugh might want to reread a few history books on our state.
In cases such as Newdow v. Roberts and Santa Fe v. Doe, Kavanaugh supported the use of the phrase “so help me God” in the presidential oath and sectarian prayer at other governmental events, as well as prayer in public schools. He has also supported permitting Christian youth groups to meet in public buildings.
It would serve him to remember the words of Roger Williams, who said that forced religion by the government “stinks in the nostrils of God.”
And maybe most frightening, Kavanaugh appears receptive to those who would distort religious freedom as an excuse harm others, especially women, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities. In Priests for Life v. HHS, Kavanaugh ruled in favor of allowing Catholic priests to deny their employees health care plans that include contraception, as required under Obamacare.
That position was out of line with the opinions of eight out of nine federal appeals courts who heard cases on this issue. It was also at odds with our legacy of religious freedom. Religious freedom means the right to believe, or not, as you see fit, but it has never meant the right to use your religion as an excuse to discriminate against other people.
As a faith leader and a Unitarian Universalist minister, I see my communities as among those most threatened by Kavanaugh. Unitarian Universalists welcome people of all religious backgrounds, and none, and we encourage people to follow their individual freedom of conscience — just like our country. Faith leaders are called to use our moral platform to speak truth to power, serve our communities, and seek social justice. We can’t do that if we are another arm of the government.
Our hope at defeating this threat to complete church-state separation on the Supreme Court is getting the Senate to vote down Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Fortunately, both of our Rhode Island Senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats, have strongly criticized Kavanaugh.
But there’s still more they can do. Senator Whitehouse serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing on Kavanaugh’s nomination in the fall. I urge Senator Whitehouse to press Kavanaugh on his beliefs about church-state separation.
Religious freedom should not be forgotten. Rhode Islanders see it as one of the best ideas we bring to the table.
The Rev. David L. Helfer is the minister of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County.