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Sunday, May 14, 2017 1:00 am

Separation anxiety: con

Trump order sparks new church-state debate

David Williamson | For the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel

President Donald Trump's executive order on religious freedom carves out new privileges for the most dogmatic religious believers among us and provides blanket exemption from laws they choose not to follow. The 23 percent of Americans who claim no religion and those who simply believe differently become second-class citizens subject to legal discrimination.

This does much more than dismantle the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It sends us back to a time when religion reigned, the 1750s.

While supporters of the executive order missed a few history lessons, the framers of our Constitution were there, and well aware of the harm of state-sanctioned religion. They saw its effects in Europe, and they knew the first American colonists established theocracies that led to state religions and left smaller Christian sects and minority religions disadvantaged.

Imagining a better future for us all – one where government promotes no religion – they set aside their religious beliefs and theological differences to draft a document that was completely neutral regarding religion. By prohibiting religious tests for public office in Article VI and formalizing the concept of “freedom from religion” in the Establishment Clause, secularism has become our most sacred American value.

While the Free Exercise Clause ensures that we are free to believe (or not) as we choose, freedom of religion does not mean freedom to discriminate and violate the rights of others. Yet Trump's executive order would permit people and organizations – including for-profit companies that claim their religious beliefs conflict with the law – to simply “opt out.” Trump's expansive order would apply to and protect “any act or refusal to act that is motivated by a sincerely held religious belief.”

The effect on everyone's liberties could be far-reaching. Here are some examples:

• Employers, doctors, pharmacists and insurance companies could deny health care, including birth control.

• Government employees might refuse to provide services, and teachers in public schools could decline to teach facts that conflict with their own beliefs.

• Domestic and child abusers could claim exemptions from criminal prosecution because their god says not to “spare the rod.”

• Adoption and child welfare organizations could refuse to place needy children in loving LGBT families because their religion calls homosexuality an “abomination.”

• Government contractors and grantees could discriminate against minority religions, while accepting your tax dollars.

• Businesses might refuse to serve on the basis of race or religion because of something in their holy book.

• Hoteliers and landlords could refuse unmarried couples and same-sex tenants.

While this executive order is aimed at privileging religious people and dismantling the rights of women and our LGBT family and friends, it does much more than that.

Regardless of what the loudest, most radical anti-equality activists demand, this is not the future we want for our children.

Humans have developed an uncanny ability to form tribes and to “other-ize” those unlike ourselves.

Fortunately, we have also learned to build compassionate communities and loving congregations to treat others as they would like to be treated. To continue to bend the moral arc of the universe and make a difference for those who still fight for basic human rights, we must remain connected to their experiences and be vocal about our outrage.

All of us – religious and nonreligious people who share the common value of caring for and loving one another – must stand united against those who seek to discriminate in the name of religion and by force of law.

If we fail to engage in the debate or if we underestimate the consequences of allowing religious dogma back into the halls of government, we may find our future indistinguishable from our dark past.

David Williamson is co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community, an organization focused on separation of state and church and building a local humanist community.