Why We Want to Keep Church and State as Far Away from Each Other as Possible

Last month in London, an atheist church was launched with a reading from Alice in Wonderland, a Powerpoint presentation by a particle physicist explaining the origins of antimatter, and a congregational singalong with songs by Stevie Wonder and Queen. Indeed, we’ve come a long way, baby. Personally, I stopped believing in God when I was a kid and the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. How, I thought, could an omnipotent deity allow that to happen?

I was militant in my disbelief until the 1960s. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian leader, but I was inspired by his actions, whereas George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, labeled himself an agnostic, yet I abhorred his actions. I could no longer judge people by what they believed, but rather by whether they were kind or cruel to others. As simple as that. However, I’ve remained adamant about the separation of church and state.

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My definition of a religion is a cult that’s exempt from paying taxes. Scientology, for example. L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics became a bestseller with the aid of a Scientologist employed at the New York Times who leaked the names of those bookstores around the country that provide the basis for the Times’ bestseller list. Hubbard’s thesis was that traumatic shock occurs not only during early childhood, but also during the pre-natal stage.

In Neurotica magazine, G. Legman took off on that concept with his own cult, called Epizootics, “demonstrating the basic cause of all neurosis in father’s tight-fitting jockstrap.” Not to be outdone by parody, Hubbard in 1952 turned Dianetics into Scientology, which traced trauma back to previous lives, not necessarily incarnations that were spent on this planet. In fact, Scientologists were forbidden to see the movie 2001 in order to avoid “heavy and unnecessary restimulation.” By what? When Hal the computer says “Unclear”?

In 1955, Hubbard incorporated Scientology as a religion. This would enable its ministers to gain entry into hospitals and prisons, not to mention getting tax exempt status. He issued the Professional Auditors Bulletin, a handbook for luring prospects into the Scientology fold. One example was the “illness research” method, taking out a newspaper ad such as: “Polio victims -- a charitable organization investigating polio desires to examine several victims of the after-effects of this illness. Phone so-and-so.”

In 1962, Hubbard wrote to John F. Kennedy, claiming his letter was as important as the one Albert Einstein had sent to Franklin D. Roosevelt about the atomic bomb. He insisted that “Scientology is very easy for the government to put into effect,” and that “Scientology could decide the space race or the next war in the hands of America.” He offered to “train astronauts” for a fee of $25 an hour. “Don’t think me a crackpot,” he requested. Kennedy didn’t respond, but the White House issued a memo to the Secret Service titled “Final Disposition,” identifying Hubbard as a potential serious threat to the president’s life.

The E-Meter had been presented as a panacea that could cure such “psychosomatic” problems as arthritis, cancer, polio, ulcers, the common cold and atomic radiation burns. In October 1962, the FDA was investigating Scientology, so Hubbard wrote that the E-Meter is “a valid religious instrument, used in Confessionals, and is in no way diagnostic and does not treat.”

Nevertheless, in January 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the FDA to raid Scientology headquarters. More than three tons of equipment, papers and books were seized, including a hundred E-Meters.

Scientologists claimed that this violated their freedom of religion, and Hubbard wrote to President Kennedy again. He wanted to meet with him so they could “come to some amicable answer on religious matters.” Then he wrote to Robert Kennedy, “even though you are of a different faith,” asking for protection of the Scientology religion. Bobby didn’t respond.

In Scientology, Kennedy could have been declared an "Enemy," subject to "Fair Game," a penalty described this way in a Hubbard Policy Letter: “May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist. May be tricked, sue or lied to or destroyed.” In October 1968, four months after Bobby Kennedy was killed, Fair Game was “repealed,” due to adverse publicity. “The practice of declaring people Fair Game will cease,” Hubbard stated in a Policy Letter. “Fair Game may not appear on any Ethics Order. It causes bad public relations.”

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April 17 will mark the 23rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision that the government may restrict religiously motivated conduct, declaring in this case that members of the Native American Church do not have a constitutional right to use peyote during their religious ceremonies. Native Americans refer to peyote as the "sacred medicine” and use it to combat spiritual, physical and other social ills.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the 6-3 majority, “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.” Attorney Oliver Thomas stated in the Baptist Press, “With a stroke of his pen, Justice Scalia has overturned 27 years of legal precedent and made the ‘first liberty’ a constitutional stepchild.”

One of the plaintiffs was quoted in Church and State: “The United States is saying the original people of this land can’t worship. We were worshipping a long time before the white man ever set foot on this turtle island.” Attorney John Boyd, who represented the plaintiffs, had stated, “I think because of the difficult history that native people have had with our government over the past two centuries, their view is, somehow, some way, ‘We're going to get screwed in this.’ You can't blame them.”

A few years after the Supreme Court ruling, he pointed out that, under the 1993 RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act), “the Catholic Church would be able to say, ‘We have to be able to conduct mass, and we need wine in order to do that.’ The courts would say [that] unless the government can show that it had a genuine compelling interest of preventing the Catholic Church from using wine as its sacrament, then the Catholic Church would prevail under RFRA if it challenged [hypothetical reinstatement of] Prohibition.”

More recently, Boyd told me:

“There is something about the freedom of religion that happily seems to get past the courts' usual inclination to squash aberrant behavior and to disrespect and dilute other human freedoms. In the disfavored categories of freedom are ones we're all familiar with although we may not be too conscious of their fragility and the jeopardy they're in. Like being secure in your communications with others, or your freedom to speak about non-religious subjects, or engage in disfavored behavior that, while not harmful to anyone, is nevertheless subject to societal disapprobation.

“Religious freedom seems to be a freedom that courts still sort of respect, and religion is an area of human activity that allows people to express themselves in ways that the rest of society sometimes frowns on or otherwise doesn't quite accept, so protecting it as good. The same logic that protects fringe religions -- and protects, at least hypothetically, atheism and agnosticism -- makes it equally important to be free from government endorsement of religion and religious ideas and religious leanings, which is an area the courts have failed to honor as earnestly as they've honored the freedom of religious exercise. Government endorsement of religion is just as poisonous as suppression of religion. Maybe more so.”

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Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has been serving as an antidote to that poison. It was founded in 1947 as Protestants and Other Americans for the Separation of Church and State. The name-change took place in 1971. Rev. Barry Lynn has been the executive director since 1992. He recalls that “James Dobson, president of Focus On the Family, once came up to me in a Washington restaurant and said, ‘Barry, you destroyed every good thing we tried to do.’  Rather than being ‘damned by faint praise,’ I felt ‘elevated by high praise.’”

He tells me, “I've found that separation of church and state is the key component to the preservation of fundamental rights of all kinds. It was, and still is, the Religious Right and the Catholic hierarchy that try to impose their theological views on everyone and is the biggest foe of reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights, secular public school -- which don't teach creationism -- and most other worthy ideas. I’m glad that I am seen by these folks as their greatest nemesis.

“The most disappointing single day on the church/state front in the past 20 years was the day of the 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of a school voucher plan in Cleveland, Ohio.  Most of the voucher dollars went to pervasively sectarian schools. Happily, the legal team, of which Americans United lawyers are a part, have pretty much prevented any other major voucher program from going into effect. Although new small programs pop up, many are declared unconstitutional under state -- not the federal constitutions.

“If all the church/state implicated issues went away, I'd want to work on what I see as two of the biggest evils in the modern world: the continued existence of the death penalty and sex trafficking. This isn't about censorship; it’s about violation of basic human rights.”

Meanwhile, exempting religions from paying taxes continues to be actually a violation of the separation of church and state.

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So, now I just have to click Send and this goes off into cyberspace. I have become almost as much in awe of technology as I am of nature -- in keeping with the atheist church theme of “wonder,” a reaction to criticism that atheists lack a sense of it.

But I’m an absurdist as well as an atheist, and what could be more absurd than my practice of having continuous dialogues with the deity I don’t believe exists? In my capacity as a stand-up satirist, before I go onstage, I always say, “Please, God, let me do a good show tonight.” And then I hear the voice of God boom out from the clouds above, “SHUT UP, YOU SUPERSTITIOUS FOOL."

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