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A court decision this month shows how distressingly difficult it is to legally enforce the constitution’s church-state separation intentions — even in a slam-dunk case of religious discrimination by a publicly funded organization.

Angelic sculpture: A statue of an angel embraced by children overlooks an abandoned church school in Mt. Olive, North Carolina. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flikr, Public Domain)

Such cases require laser focus, herculean energy and substantial financial resources rigorously applied over many months and oftentimes years. And the outcome is never assured.

In the relevant court case, Judge Timothy M. Cain of the U.S. District Court in South Carolina ruled August 10 that Maddonna v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) may proceed in the legal process, the secular activist group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) reported. The suit was originally filed on February 15, 2019.

AU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Aimee Maddonna, a Catholic mother of three from Simpsonville, SC, who claimed discrimination when she “was turned away from helping children in foster care by a taxpayer-funded agency solely because she is Catholic – the ‘wrong’ religion for the evangelical Christian Miracle Hill Ministries,” AU asserted.

“Instead of denouncing this discriminatory practice, the Trump administration and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster sanctioned the government-funded religious discrimination,” AU reported. “The case was filed against the federal and state governments because it is unconstitutional for government-funded child-placement agencies to discriminate against prospective foster parents based on their religion when those agencies are acting on the government’s behalf; South Carolina and HHS may not provide tax dollars to faith-based child-placement agencies that use discriminatory religious criteria, just as the government cannot discriminate when placing children directly; and HHS did not follow proper procedure when it excused South Carolina and its foster care agencies from following federal anti-discrimination law.”

Even to a casual observer not schooled in the intricacies of the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting a woman from providing foster-care services because she is of the “wrong religion” is clearly discriminatory on religious grounds, which would thus very presumably be unconstitutional.

But the need to have that stipulated in a court ruling before anything can be enforced — a very complex, expensive and time-consuming pursuit with no guarantees — is what makes church-state separation issues seem so quixotic and difficult. Unfortunately, “It’s obvious!” just doesn’t cut when you want to hold violators accountable.

In responding to Judge Cain’s ruling last week, AU Senior Litigation Counsel Kenneth Upton wrote:

“Aimee Maddonna and her family wanted to help some of the nearly 5,000 children in foster care in South Carolina. Due to government-funded religious discrimination, she was denied that opportunity. So she’s helping children who have been denied the chance to find loving homes another way – by challenging these unconstitutional state and federal policies that allow taxpayer-funded foster care agencies who are acting on behalf of the state to reject qualified parents because of their religion. We’re glad the court agreed that Aimee’s case can proceed and we look forward to stopping the government from violating our country’s fundamental promise of religious freedom – that it gives us all the right to believe, or not, as we choose, but it doesn’t give us the right to discriminate.”

The purposeful discrimination against Maddonna by Christian Miracle Hill Ministries (CMHM) shows the disconnect between attitudes of conservative evangelical Christians and the Founding Fathers. CMHM’s attitude seems to be that it’s perfectly OK, even sanctified, if Christians like them ban people of other religions (or none) from participating in their organization’s federally funded activities.

Yet, the Constitution is clear: discrimination against any American due to religious preference, in any activity, is prohibited.

But that is how Christian privilege presents. The idea is that Christians somehow have been granted special dispensation under the Constitution, that they should not be forced to abide by the Constitution when demanding that others not of their religion must abide by their dogmas and be prevented from accessing fundamental rights — even if it’s irrefutably discriminatory.

To my mind, the solution is simple: just keep religion forever at arm’s length from government, and that would mean that no federally funded program should ever be allowed to discriminate due to religion. Period. If CMHM can’t abide by that, they should get out of the foster-care business and leave it to practitioners who won’t discriminate. After all, the point is to find loving temporary homes for vulnerable children, and people any religion or none could conceivably provide such care. People of particular faiths hold no special morality or skill set for foster care. Good human beings of all varied kinds do.

This kind of court case is what makes the goal of church-state separation so fraught. If religion were kept completely clear of governance and tax funding, no problem. It’s when religion tries to insert itself in the official public square — and demand special privileges others don’t have and the Constitution doesn’t allow — that the necessary chasm seems to narrow.

But it should be wide.

Edicts against discrimination are in Caesar’s wheelhouse, not God’s. Religion has no business meddling in that sphere, as the Founding Fathers clearly intended.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...