When Faith and Politics Don't Mix
From hunting and liquor laws to public education and marriage.
According to a poll taken shortly before the Super Bowl, 50 percent of American sports fans think supernatural forces affect the outcome of athletic contests. Judging from recent debates, many Virginians think supernatural forces should affect the outcome of political ones, too.
Take Sunday hunting. Virginia is one of the few states that forbid it, and hunting enthusiasts have been pressing to lift the ban for years. This year they may be winning — though plenty of others still object to the idea.
Some of the opponents are hikers, bird-watchers and similar outdoor recreationists who would like to have one day when they don't have to worry about catching a stray shot in the neck.
But others agree with Del. Thomas C. Wright Jr. (R-Lunenburg) who wants everyone to "think about the direction our country is going in, the direction our morals are going in. I think this country was a lot better off when we had some respect for Sunday, when you got up and went to church and things of that nature. Sunday is the Lord's day, it's a day of worship, and hunting is not going to do a thing but continue to chip away at that day."
Sentiments such as those have deep roots. Virginia's "blue laws" against Sunday merchandise sales lasted well into the 1980s; localities in Hampton Roads and the Roanoke Valley voted repeatedly to keep them. (Even the vice president of the Tidewater Merchants Association insisted, "Sunday is not a day for work.") Virginia didn't open any of its state-run liquor stores on Sunday until a decade ago — and many of them remained closed on Sunday until 2012.
Today, faith-based arguments sometimes masquerade as something else. Del. Richard P. "Dickie" Bell (R-Staunton), for instance, is sponsoring House Bill 207, which ostensibly protects teachers who want to teach "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories." Critics view it as a stalking horse for creationists, noting that Bell believes God created a "mature Earth" around 10,000 years ago.
In other cases, the biblical basis for state law remains explicit. Last year, the commonwealth finally repealed a provision of the state code — written in 1877 — that prohibited "lewd and lascivious" cohabitation. But the Code of Virginia still makes adultery a crime, along with fornication. If you are not married, and you have sex in Virginia, you are breaking the law. On Wednesday a House subcommittee on constitutional law killed a proposal to repeal that statute.
This year, legislators beat back a proposal that would have forbidden counselors — clergy excepted — to practice "conversion therapy" on minors to change their sexual orientation, as well as a measure that would have allowed gay and lesbian couples to adopt. Measures to start the process of repealing Virginia's ban on gay marriage have gone nowhere.
That ban currently faces challenge in court. Attorney General Mark R. Herring has won raves for switching teams and siding with plaintiffs seeking to overturn it before the ink on his letterhead had dried. The ban is irrational and unjust, as explained in last Sunday's column. But there are good reasons, entirely separate from the merits of the issue, to criticize Herring for abandoning his post.
A group of religious leaders who held a news conference a few days ago didn't make any of them. Instead, they did Herring a huge favor by decrying "the moral status of the nation" and calling homosexuality a "perversion" and suggesting 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis were messages from God about the need to repent. (Nobody who says Event X is a message from God ever explains why God wants to be so obscure. Calamities are subject to competing explanations. A few flaming words in the sky would be much more clear.)
Progressives find all of this terribly off-putting, and rightfully so. But social conservatives aren't the only ones "trying to impose their values on the rest of us." A few days ago, the left-leaning Virginia Interfaith Center held its Day for All People event in Richmond. Advocates pushed for the center's 2014 legislative priorities — which include expanding Medicaid, sustaining the state's ban on uranium mining and investing in solar power. The Christian left and the Christian right disagree on many things, but they seem united in the belief that their beliefs should shape public policy.
And why shouldn't they? People of faith are citizens, too, and everybody's political views are informed by values of some sort or other. No reason a disciple of Christ should enjoy less liberty to petition the government than a disciple of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand.
On the other hand, there's a difference between personally held views and official government policy. Virginians of a Christian persuasion might feel differently about the appropriate degree of religion in the public sphere if county supervisors opened meetings with prayers by Wiccans, or if Muslims penned legislation to make health clubs hold separate exercise classes for men and women.
Possibilities like the latter led two years ago to the introduction of House Bill 825, whose purpose was to prevent "foreign law" from influencing Virginia's courts. This wasn't owing to a sudden spike in the popularity of Lithuanian jurisprudence. It was a prophylactic against creeping Shariah.
The measure languished in committee, which is just as well. Judging from current debate, the theocratic threat is coming from an entirely different direction.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.