I begin with a statement that I have written over and over again. The United States is a secular nation in which religion is practiced freely.
Our nation was perceived and molded by men of differing religious opinions. In their wisdom, they wrote founding documents that both preserved and excluded religion. The U.S. Constitution is as thoroughly secular as a document can be. No religious document has been given authority by our founding documents. The Bible, the Koran nor the Book of Mormon is allowed into our courtrooms as documents with authority over our public affairs. The Ten Commandments have no more authority over the affairs of our nation than “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
In our history, the rights of people have been established despite religious protest. During those horrible years that ended with the abolition of slavery, preachers across the south were pounding the pulpits and quoting the Bible in support of slavery. It was a secular nation that ended slavery in America. The final word was an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. During the struggles for equal rights for women, once again the opposition was religious authorities quoting the Bible. The struggle was won by a secular nation that imbedded equality for all in our nation with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
During my years as a minister, two additional human rights issues have been dominant in the public square. I have been deeply involved in both issues. The first is the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. For nearly 40 years I have been involved in the struggle for full acceptance of gay persons in our churches and full rights of gay persons in the affairs of our nation. Because of my involvement in the struggle for gay acceptance, I was shunned by a local ministerial fellowship, the church that I pastored was disfellowshipped by the American Baptist Churches of Alaska, and I was forced into early retirement.
The full legal rights of gay persons are slowly but surely moving along in the court systems of states and the nation. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gay persons to serve in the U.S. military is a milestone almost as significant as the Stonewall Riot. Again churches are being dragged toward morality by a secular nation. Just as in the issues of slavery and equality for women, opposition to the establishment of full rights for gay persons has been centered in our churches. Ministers have pounded their pulpits and made their pronouncements quoting the Bible from irrelevant passages. It is the secular U.S. Constitution that will bring justice to our gay citizens.
The second human rights issue of my ministerial years is the right to end a flawed or unwanted pregnancy. Does a woman have the legal right to choose to end a pregnancy, or does that decision lie with government and governmental agencies? 15 years ago, I joined with others and filed a lawsuit against our local hospital when the hospital refused abortion services to a woman who requested those services.
We quickly were able to obtain a temporary injunction against the hospital. The hospital was forced to offer abortion services. Eventually, the case ended up before the Alaska Supreme Court. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The local hospital still operates under a permanent injunction that forces it to offer abortion services.
The process was not easy. There were protest marches and pickets. The local newspaper carried an abundance of stories and opinion columns. Once again in a civil rights issue the protesters were people of deep religious convictions. The air was full of Bible quotes and theological pronouncements. The majority of the community’s religious leaders were a part of the protest. A smaller number were discreetly quiet.
We again learned that we were dealing with a human rights issue in a thoroughly secular setting. The religious rhetoric was loud, but had no legal standing. The issues in the abortion case were argued in civil courts, not in religious tribunals.
Over and over again, political candidates run on platforms of opposition to abortion. It is a vote getter. In reality candidates who run on an anti-abortion platform should know that under the laws of our nation the abortion issue is secular. Deeply religious people argue that life is sacred and must be protected even in the womb. The sacredness of life is an argument that of necessity falls on deaf ears in our courts of law. Our nation was intentionally established as secular. The U.S. Constitution is a secular document. We are reminded by political candidates that the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land. This being the case, they should also have the honesty to tell the voting public that the U.S. Constitution has no power to declare anything sacred, including an unborn child.
This secular U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom for everyone. Baptists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Muslims, Jews, Lutherans and every other religious group are free to believe and practice their faiths. All are free to have their opinions about abortions, but none of their opinions have legal standing in our uniquely secular nation.
Abortion should be the greatest of all political nonissues. The rule of law, not religion, is at the heart of our nation.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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