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    Ann Rostow: As Maine Goes, So Goes the Nation

    By Ann Rostow–

    As Maine Goes, So Goes the Nation

    Readers, forgive me for dropping lengthy blocks of other people’s writing into this column, normally an inexcusably lazy approach, but in this case, a defensible one. Writing in dissent, Justice Sotomayor rebuked the 6–3 majority, led by Roberts, that ruled on June 21 that Maine’s program to subsidize parents who lived outside of a public school district must direct taxpayer dollars to religious schools if a parent so wished, even to schools that teach conservative Christian doctrine. The decision caps a series of rightwing Court opinions that have gradually eroded the wall between church and state. 

    As Sotomayor put it:

    “What a difference five years makes. In 2017, I feared that the Court was ‘lead[ing] us … to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment,’” she wrote, quoting herself in the case of Trinity Lutheran v Comer. “Today, the Court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation (emphasis mine). If a State cannot offer subsidies to its citizens without being required to fund religious exercise, any State that values its historic antiestablishment interests more than this Court does will have to curtail the support it offers to its citizens. With growing concern for where this Court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent.”   

    Trinity Lutheran, you may recall from our scintillating coverage in these pages, was the case in which the state of Missouri refused to let religious groups benefit from a program that supplied rubber from old tires to playground operators. The Court downplayed the religious nature of the church that wanted to use this material as a playground surface, and indeed, it sounded pretty innocuous. Why would anyone care if a church took advantage of taxpayer funded scrap rubber? Well, as Sotomayor implied in a dissent at the time, money is fungible. The thousand dollars or whatever that Trinity saved on its playground presumably served a religious purpose.

    Fast forward a couple of years, and the Roberts Court ruled that parents could not be barred from state tuition tax breaks because they chose a religious school. Montana’s policy, wrote Roberts for the 5–4 Court, impermissibly discriminated against such schools for their religious affiliation alone, not for their religious practices. 

    Now, however, the Court has jumped the shark. The parents who fought Maine’s non-sectarian tuition program aimed to send their kids to far-right Christian schools, schools that use the Bible in math class, teach the inerrancy of scripture, call homosexuality a sin, and so forth. The Court has ruled, not just that Maine can subsidize such teachings under the guise of providing a public education, but that Maine must do so. As Justice Breyer asked in his own dissent: 

    “What happens once ‘may’ becomes ‘must’?”

    “Does that transformation mean that a school district that pays for public schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools? Does it mean that school districts that give vouchers for use at charter schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to give their children a religious education? What other social benefits are there the State’s provision of which means—under the majority’s interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause—that the State must pay parents for the religious equivalent of the secular benefit provided?”

    Keep in mind that Maine’s program didn’t automatically classify a school as “sectarian” simply because it was associated with a church. The schools that Maine refused to pay for were those that taught with a religious emphasis, like Bangor Christian and Temple Academy. Bangor Christian teaches intelligent design and boasts that its academic and religious instructions are “completely intertwined.” Temple, Breyer tells us, aims to “foster within each student an attitude of love and reverence of the Bible as the infallible, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God.”

    This is not the education that Roberts approved of in the 2020 Montana case, and it’s certainly not the seemingly harmless use of taxpayer funds spent on the playgrounds of Missouri. It’s a blatant violation of the First Amendment, and as Sotomayor pointed out elsewhere in her dissent, “ … while purporting to protect against discrimination of one kind, the Court requires Maine to fund what many of its citizens believe to be discrimination of other kinds.” In other words, as the Court insists Maine is “discriminating” on the basis of religion, its remedy requires the state to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, any religion that is not fundamentalist Christian, any taxpayer who doesn’t follow religion in the first place and God knows who else might object to the lesson plans at Bangor and Temple. 

    All the state wanted to do was stay out of the fray as required by the Constitution. But the Roberts Court insists on picking a side, and my friends, they’re not on our side. There are 13 more cases to be decided this month, with several opinions expected as we go to press on Thursday. We are waiting, of course, for the Mississippi abortion ruling, but also for the case of Joseph Kennedy, the public school football coach who held Christian prayers at the fifty-yard line after games. How do you think that one’s going to turn out? And what would the Court have thought of Joseph Kennedy if he had put down a prayer rug facing Mecca and thanked Allah for a good game?

    And There’s More

    There’s a lot to cover this week. FINA, the international swimming authorities, have banned transgender women who went through puberty as males, arguing essentially that testosterone levels don’t really matter once a person has experienced whatever one experiences when they go through puberty. 

    I know you’ve read about the gang of crazies who were caught headed for a Pride festival in Idaho to cause trouble and throw smoke bombs.

    Then there’s another school case that caught our eye, a decision by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that brought the hammer down on a school that forced girls to wear skirts under the theory that females were fragile and males should be taught chivalry. That school, Charter Day School in North Carolina, receives federal funds and was found in violation of the girls’ right to Equal Protection under the Constitution. Future litigation will determine if Charter Day also violated Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination. 

    That makes one wonder if the students at Bangor Christian can raise a claim under Maine constitutional law. Of course, they’d need their own lawyers since their parents aren’t going to object to whatever sexist nonsense they’re no doubt learning in class. 

    And, of course, it’s Pride Week. It’s not, however, the Pride Week of a few years ago when our community seemed to be breaking the back of widespread social hostility and poised to enjoy carefree celebrations filled with frolic and fun. It’s the post-Trumpian world of open misogyny, gay hatred, race-baiting, and transphobic domestic terror. Have a great time, everyone!

    Fear Itself

    There’s an article in the June 17 Washington Post that pretty much sums up the state of affairs as we roll into Pride 2022. The three dozen members of the “Patriot Front” that were arrested in Idaho for conspiracy to riot at Coeur d’Alene Pride generated national headlines with their metal poles, smoke bombs, protective gear, paramilitary uniforms, and anti-GLBT planning. But as the Post recounts, these jokers represented only the most visible tip of the iceberg.

    A talk show host called for executing GLBT advocates. A Texas pastor said GLBT people “should be lined up against the wall and shot in the back of the head.” Two fires at places with rainbow flags were set in Baltimore, where three people were injured. The Human Rights Campaign says transgender violence hit a new high this year. And transgender Americans were targeted in many of the 250 anti-GLBT state legislative proposals, another new high, of which at least 24 were enacted, another record. 

    Proud Boys screamed down a drag queen story time in San Lorenzo, while another group of Proud Boys in Texas disrupted a drag brunch, threatening citizens’ arrests. The Anti-Defamation League catalogued seven anti-gay incidents in one weekend this month, including a threat that led to a Pride event being canceled in Georgia and there was an antigay protest by white supremacists in New Jersey. After one drag story time event was cancelled out of fear in North Carolina, Equality North Carolina stepped in and held the story time, vowing that they would fight attempts “to invade our spaces, to silence us, to disperse us, and limit our freedom to be ourselves in our community.”   

    I got all of that from one article. 

    One thing is key. Our old adversaries on the Christian right have mutated into a larger and more dangerous collection of far-right hate mongers, brought together not just out of hatred for our community, but for a widespread venomous attack on women, Democrats, people of color, immigrants, pacifists, foreigners of any sort, nonbelievers, intellectuals, and anyone who makes them feel insecure in any way. Their methods are not limited to church sermons or political referenda, but include violence, threats, and hate speech. Our community seems to touch all their sore spots. And it feels as if they can barely control their rage at the world around them and those who embody their fears. 

    It seems just a matter of time before they hit us, not with smoke grenades or metal poles, but with gunfire.

    And make no mistake. The Christian right may seem tame by comparison, but the current situation is their handiwork. The nastiness, the animosity, the disdain for those who don’t follow scriptural rules, the Trump administration judges and justices fresh off the most conservative wishlists, the narrow, patriarchal view of women, the racism built into evangelical society. They opened a Pandora’s box of humanity’s worst impulses, so, um, thanks for that, guys. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus would approve.

    Life in These United States

    I have a few other weird stories. Here’s one from Oklahoma where a judge removed a lesbian mother from her son’s birth certificate after she divorced her wife, the birth mother. Oh, and the judge stuck the women’s sperm donor in place of the ex. That decision was later reversed by the same judge, but still! I was going to do some research on this little tidbit but I can’t be bothered at this late stage of our time together.

    Oh, what the hell. It sounds like a mess. The birth mother has filed for a restraining order against the other one, whom she accused of various bad things. She now lives with the sperm donor, whom they got off a website, and who has a dozen other children. He wants custody, too. The judge originally told the other mother she could be removed from the birth certificate because she never adopted her son (even though the women were married at the time). I’m not sure why the judge changed her mind, because I didn’t do that much research. Just the bare minimum to satisfy your curiosity. Oklahoma! Am I right?

    Well, maybe not just Oklahoma. Republicans in Texas approved a bonkers party platform that says Biden’s election was fraudulent, promotes the (unconstitutional) right to secede from the United States, and calls homosexuality an “abnormal lifestyle choice.” I could go on, but I won’t. 

    And did you see the commercial for Missouri senate candidate Eric Greitens? This guy, who resigned as governor of the state after being accused of tying up his mistress and abusing his kids, is pictured with a shotgun going “RINO hunting” with some other armed men. Greitens urges his supporters to get their “RINO hunting permit,” and promises: “There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.” His campaign manager is none other than the frightening Kimberly Guilfoyle.

    Part of our dilemma, and I’m speaking for the majority of Americans, is that we are not violent; we do not fight fire with fire. Because how can we? We are not insane. So, we are faced, not just with unmatched aggression, but with unmatched craziness as well. We fight haplessly with committee hearings and podcasts and The New York Times op-eds. 

    We need an American backlash, but it doesn’t seem imminent. Our courts and our politicians seem impotent. And our compatriots care more about gas prices and inflation than the fact that we are coming apart at the seams. I know this is a depressing column, but at least I didn’t quote “The Second Coming.”

    Published on June 23, 2022