Civic Witness

Don't let the Establishment Clause be a One-Way Street


A recent iteration of the Providence Journal’s Political Scene column mentioned some vague legislation submitted by progressives in the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate. The proposal (which has since been withdrawn) would have given the state government authority to go into all public and private schools in the state and test them against an official measure of tolerance.

If a school made any decision that some student, parent, or activist found to be discriminatory “on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, socioeconomic status or mental, physical, developmental, or sensory disability,” he or she could have taken the matter to the state. Somehow. As comprehensive as their list of protected categories may have been, the legislators didn’t provide any guidance about who would oversee the matter or what the consequences might be for violating it.

The bill’s primary sponsor in the House, Providence Democrat Grace Diaz told the Providence Journal that the negative response to the bill surprised her. The idea, Political Scene wrote, “reflects [Diaz’s] beliefs as a Christian woman about how children should be treated.”

Wait, what? Aren’t progressives supposed to oppose politicians’ legislating their religious beliefs? What happened to that separation of church and state thing?

The obvious reality is that “separation” talk is just partisan baloney. Adherents to the progressive ideology understand that individual people are able to pass through the proverbial wall between government and religion. As long as the hierarchy of a church or ideological movement isn’t actually running the government, there’s nothing wrong with legislating one’s morality.

If anything, progressives actually surpass conservatives in wanting to impose their beliefs on other people through the force of government. Oh, they’ve got a number of self-deceptive gimmicks that allow them to feel otherwise — the assertion of their beliefs as objective fact, for example — but they see the law as the sine qua non of “who we are as a community,” and that means it must reflect their beliefs.

It’s only your beliefs, if you disagree, that simply aren’t allowed.

Back in 2006, the state government of Massachusetts forced the Catholic Church out of adoption services in the state because Catholic principles wouldn’t allow the placement of children into households not headed by a couple married under the Church’s definition of marriage. That wasn’t a problem before the Massachusetts Supreme Court changed the government’s definition of marriage. Redefinition of the term, however, made it no longer sufficient for the government to objectively acknowledge what marriage meant; instead, it had to enforce a particular, radical meaning.

In a perverse distortion of reason, progressive advocates insisted that, if the Church’s metaphysical understanding of marriage differed from the government’s metaphysical understanding of marriage, it would be an establishment of religion within government to consider the disagreement legitimate. Only the one true meaning of marriage — the progressive meaning — could be tolerated.

If the clause in the First Amendment that forbids “an establishment of religion” within government means anything, it means that government can’t enforce one set of beliefs as the law to the exclusion of others. Unfortunately, too many people in an increasingly powerful ideological group don’t much care about the objective meaning of words. To them, the Establishment Clause is a one-way street. They get to establish, you have to follow their dogma.

Diaz may have pulled her bill when people didn’t treat it as the feel-good filler that she intended, but Catholics should consider it to be a warning shot. After all, if people in the state government believe they should have the right to come into our schools and determine whether our teachings discriminate, they must also believe they have the right to tell our children how they ought to live and, ultimately, what our relationship with God must be.

Justin Katz is Research Director for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and editor of