I have been interacting online with a few Donald Trump supporters about Democrats’ desire to repeal the House of Representatives’ 1837 rule against hats on its chamber floor. The move comes in response to the unprecedented election of two Muslim women to the House, and is intended to allow them to wear their traditional religious headwear. (The 19th Century rule itself has little to do with religion, and simply forbids hats outright.)
Some of the Trump supporters are expressing their objections civilly, and some of them a bit less so, but their message is the same — that the Democrats’ desired change would be a breach of separation of church and state. Their broader (and apparently quite popular) argument is this — Democrats support separation of church and state when it comes to “purging God” from the public schools, but then ignore the concept when presented with an opportunity to shoehorn “ISLAM” (gasp!) to the halls of Congress.
This argument is poor. I am not a Democrat, and I do not presume to speak for them. But I am a separation of church and state supporter, and I will try here to briefly speak to that.
1) The American principle of law known as “separation of church and state” has nothing to do with promoting or “purging” any religion. The term was coined by Thomas Jefferson to describe one of the First Amendment’s key purposes — to keep a civil government and religious institutions separate, so that neither can perniciously affect the other. Its proponents (which ought to include every American) do not necessarily claim that any religion is good or bad — they merely claim that all religions should be kept separate from a government that is meant to serve all of their various constituencies. It is the best recipe for fairness, and I believe firmly that it is an important firewall against the United States becoming a theocracy.
And yes, evangelical skeptics, I do realize that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear verbatim in the text of the First Amendment. This shouldn’t matter, as the First Amendment’s text speaks succinctly enough itself on the matter: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (That sounds pretty straightforward to me.)
And the words are indeed Jefferson’s — he coined the term when writing about the First Amendment, in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Its text is clear:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
2) Saying that a legislator wearing a religious scarf is a violation of separation of church and state (and comprises a government endorsement of religion) is an incredible reach. By that logic, members of Congress shouldn’t be allowed to wear crucifixes as pendants or lapel pins either. Or … let me try a different example. Suppose that a Christian legislator wore a cap or a t-shirt depicting a crucifix. It would be silly for me to claim that this was a government endorsement of Christianity. Modes of personal dress do not represent an effort by their wearers to force religion on the rest of us.
Furthermore, proscribing these modes of dress could easily be perceived as a violation of the wearer’s individual First Amendment rights. (It is my understanding that Democrats are characterizing this prohibition — reasonably, I think — as a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion.) I would also entertain the idea that it violates freedom of speech as well.
3) Comparing a head scarf with the issue of mandatory prayer in the public schools is a tremendous false equivalence. One concerns what one member of Congress can wear on her head. The other concerns whether a religious schoolteacher can force all public school children under his or her charge to pray. The former consists of one person “participating” in a religion (inasmuch as modes of dress denoting affiliation are seen as “participating.”) The latter consists of one person (quite literally) forcing others to participate.
4) If prayer in the public schools is what Trump supporters are truly so concerned about, then they can relax. We already have prayer in the public schools — student initiated, voluntary prayer. What we do not have is mandatory, teacher-led prayer in the public schools. Students are free to pray. Public school students are also free to refrain from prayer, whether or not the teacher is happy with that. This best ensures that the rights of religious people are protected, while the rights of non-religious people are also protected. Doesn’t that sound fair?
5) This is admittedly a silly argument, but … a rule against hats? Does Congress really need that? Let the new Muslim legislators wear their head scarves. Let Christian legislators wear hats depicting Christian symbols, if that is what they would like. Let the Trump supporters wear MAGA caps. Let a dude wear a cowboy hat. Let me wear my “Deadpool” cap (when you are all finally wise enough to elect me to Congress). Everybody should just get down with their bad selves and be cool. We’re Americans, not the 18th Century House of Lords mincing around Queen Anne. Let freedom of expression take precedence over propriety.