The motto of the United Methodist Church is “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” All are welcome because we believe that God loves all people.
As a bishop in the church, I am grateful to live in a country where I can exercise my faith. The First Amendment ensures each one of us the right to live out our faith, while protecting all people from the government establishing any religion.
President Donald Trump’s nominee to become the next justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, however, raises many questions about whether our rights will be protected. Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s writings suggest that he might be hostile to the separation of church and state.
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In a recent speech, Kavanaugh praised former Chief Justice William Rehnquist for rejecting the “wall of separation” metaphor, which has long been used to explain our religious freedom protections. Kavanaugh has also argued in favor of public school sponsored prayer, though true religious freedom requires that children not be coerced into prayer. I certainly support prayer, but I also support the right of parents — not legislators and school officials — to determine the religious education and practices of their children.
Also Kavanaugh has been a strong supporter of allowing taxpayer dollars to fund religious education and institutions. But religious freedom means that the government can’t demand that you support my church, just like it can’t tax me to fund yours. This protects both the independence of houses of worship and the conscience of the taxpayer.
One of the most pressing issues of the day is whether businesses and institutions can use religion to supersede anti-discrimination laws or deny women access to reproductive healthcare. Kavanaugh’s prior opinions suggest that he might grant religious exemptions to some, even when they harm others.
I believe that everyone should be free to practice their religion, as long as they are not doing so in a way that denies rights to others. For example, some religious entities run foster care agencies. These agencies should not receive taxpayer dollars if they are not willing to place foster children with potential parents solely because they are of another faith or have no religious affiliation. Nor should they be allowed to refuse to place children with parents based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is discrimination.
Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein of California clearly understand the dangers of such religious exemptions. Their bill, which they introduced in the Senate this year, will ensure that a federal law that was designed as a shield to protect religion is not used as a sword to harm others. But even passage of this bill cannot prevent the use of religion to discriminate if the Supreme Court redefines the Constitution to require it. That is why it is important that Kavanaugh is asked about his interpretation of the law in this area.
It’s difficult to imagine an America without a separation of church and state. It is one of the cornerstones of our democracy and the reason religion has flourished in this country. But a shift in the court could put this freedom at stake. That is something neither people of faith nor the non-religious can afford.