by Dick Sciaroni

Once Donald Trump became a viable candidate for President, the attention of much of the American public, and American news media, has focused on Trump the celebrity-politician.  Love him or hate him, Americans seem unable to see Trump for what he is, much less see the stream of tweets and pronouncements that flow from the west wing of the White House as the fulminations of a toxic narcissist.  Make no mistake, we are all paying a price for putting a carnival barker in the White House.  This is because, while Trump is not the only game in town, and at best, we will suffer him for another two years, and at worst, another six, we too often lose sight of those seemingly more mundane issues that have the potential to affect our futures beyond all the harm Trump will be able to do.

One recurring issue that for the most part has flown beneath the public’s radar is that of religious rights.  In short, the notion of religious freedom has been hijacked by special interests to hinder and degrade progressive government programs and policies.  It goes on behind closed doors, oftentimes orchestrated by lobbyists whose only concern is the well-being of their clients at the expense of our personal liberties.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1789, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, . . . “  For several generations after its adoption, Americans for the most part were content to live and let live when it came to religion, and religion was not used to force a particular set of beliefs on others. The government took seriously the notion that it not interfere with religious beliefs and opinions.  When it did choose to regulate a religious practice, government only did so in cases when to do otherwise would have made a professed religious doctrine superior to the law of the land and would have allowed “each citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Thus in 1993 most Americans likely took little notice of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted by Congress to protect religious freedom by requiring the federal government to prove that laws that “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion are the least restrictive means to protecting a “compelling” government interest.  In other words, absent such showing, Congress forbade enactment of any law that could arguably impinge on religious freedoms.

On its face the RFRA appeared essentially harmless.  Who would object to a law that narrowly restricts the government’s ability to enact legislation that burdens the free exercise of religion?  Yet the RFA has become a powerful tool of those who would, in the name of religious freedom, impose their own religious beliefs on others in the commercial arena.

Thus it should not have come as a surprise that so-called religious rights argument became the tool of choice for those resisting progressive programs like the Affordable Care Act.  The Hobby Lobby case, decided by the Supreme Court in 2014, is a shocking example of judicial overreach by a conservative-dominated Supreme Court.  It allowed a privately-owned corporation engaged in purely commercial activity to avoid paying insurance premiums for government-mandated medical insurance coverage for birth control services for its employees. The Court did so despite the fact that paying health insurance premiums was not by any stretch of one’s imagination a religious practice much less an infringement on anyone’s religious beliefs. The effect of that ruling is that the owners of entirely commercial businesses can, in effect, impose their religiously-based anti-contraception views on their employees.

Once Hobby Lobby became the law of the land, not surprisingly it became the harbinger of further attempts by bigots to deny purely commercial services to the public based on personal religious beliefs. One need only reflect on the Supreme Court’s 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling that upheld a baker’s refusal on religious grounds to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex couple to understand that, as laudatory as the First Amendment’s protections of liberty may be, application of religious freedom protections in the 21stcentury remains fraught with danger.

It is the time for the American public to demand both effective and moral leadership of Mr. Trump. By focusing on clownish antics, e.g., a specious emergency on our southern border at the expense of millions of Americans’ livelihood, we and the media do ourselves a disservice by letting Trump and his minions distract us from the real issues that our nation faces. The relative obscurity of the religious rights debate should bring home the need to stop giving Trump center stage.  Admittedly, a vicarious focus on Trump, the real estate speculator turned reality show host turned racist carnival barker president, is understandable — one can’t make these things up.  But as amusing as it may sometimes be to watch Trump strut and preen like a barnyard rooster, we do so at some risk not only to ourselves but to our children and grandchildren who will have to deal with issues like climate change, racism and economic inequality long after Trump has ridden into the sunset.

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