Judge Ronald R Lagueux, in his ruling in Ahlquist v. City of Cranston that removed the prayer banner from the walls of the auditorium at Cranston High School West, described the Cranston School Committee’s open meetings to discuss the prayer banner as at times having the tenor of “a religious revival.”
This is something those who have followed the testimony before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on the subject of Marriage Equality can understand as the debate seems to center not on issues of secular laws in a secular government, but on whether our laws should be based upon certain individual’s narrow understanding of Biblical law.
Senator Frank Lombardi, who served on the Cranston School Board during the Prayer Banner kerfuffle and was one of the prayer banner’s most vocal defenders, drew an active comparison to the issue of Marriage Equality and the issue of the Prayer Banner, as did several witnesses and Senator Harold Metts. Since that time in Cranston, no sense of doubt about the rightness of mixing church and state has entered Lombardi’s mind, despite Judge Lagueux’s reasoned and eloquent decision. Responding to the testimonies of Chris and Kara Young, Ronald L’Heureux and Michael Krzywonos at Thursday night’s hearing Lombardi said, “We can’t defrock ourselves of our religious beliefs.”
Ron L’Heureux, a minister with New Life Worship Center, has, according to Senator Metts, supplied him with fascinating historical material about the founding fathers and religious liberty. The problem is that L’Heureux is a follower of pseudo-historian David Barton, who has fabricated a false history of the United States recasting the founders as Christian ideologues intent on establishing some sort of Christian theocracy that is at best “tolerant” of dissenting religious opinions. L’Heureux closed his testimony by addressing Senator Lombardi directly, assuring him that L’Heureux has filed a brief in Ahlquist v Cranston to have Judge Lagueux’s decision overturned. That’s right, L’Heureux is still quixotically fighting the Cranston Prayer Banner issue.
Senator Metts is no fool. He waited until Governor Lincoln Chafee delivered his testimony, then, with the Governor fixed in his seat as a captive audience and the news cameras rolling in time for the six o’clock news, Metts went into his first long speech of the night. Right away, Metts brought up his religion, saying, “I’m a sinner saved by grace and I come before you with great humility.”
Those who value the separation of church and state and a secular society found themselves wondering what this could possibly have to do with the issue before the committee. The comments by Metts were not simply out of place, they were inappropriate.
Metts went on to say that he is undaunted by the calls and emails he has received over the years that refer to him as a religious bigot. He maintained that in America, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and to religious liberty. Not satisfied with talking up his religion, Metts challenged the very idea that Marriage Equality is a civil rights issue.
“Many in my community take exception to the gay rights activists that hitch their wagon to the civil rights movement as it pertains to African Americans. What I tell people is that I can change my sexual preference tonight if I want to but I can’t change my color. What people do in the privacy of their bedrooms can never be compared to what African Americans went through in slavery.”
As Katrina Chaves pointed out yesterday, in covering the Supreme Court hearing on California’s Prop 8, African American Pastor Rev. Bill Owens made the same sort of comparison at an anti gay marriage rally. Chaves concluded that, “engaging in ‘Oppression Olympics’ serves absolutely no one.”
Metts talked about the fall of Rome and Greece being due to “moral decay.” He mourned the loss of Ten Commandment displays and mandatory prayers in public schools. Metts also said that those who claim the Bible is outdated and no longer applies are committing, in his opinion, blasphemy.
“My main opposition to this bill,” said Metts, “is based on Biblical principles.”
When not striking a strident religious tone, Metts sometimes came off as strangely paranoid and loopy. “The nations that follow God’s word will be blessed and those who rejected it were cursed. Need I remind you of the Babylonian captivity in ancient Israel? I’ll probably be gone by then but I certainly don’t want my grandchildren to be taken into captivity in China or elsewhere.”
Not for the last time did Metts talked about the redeeming power of Jesus. At several points during the long night of testimony Metts would take the time to make long, digressive rambles about his religious convictions, at times holding up and reading directly from his Bible, which he assured us all he reads every morning and every night, every day of the year.
“Even if we live to be a hundred years old, we’re only on this side of eternity for a short time,” said Metts during one of his long digressions, “It’s the other side of eternity we should be concerned with.” Later in the same speech, Metts compared the battle over Marriage Equality to “a cosmic battle between God and Satan, and whether we like it or not, we’re part of it.”
An elected state Senator regaling the crowd with frankly childish mythologies about a cosmic battle between God and Satan for human souls in the context of a hearing about marriage equality should be worrisome enough for anyone concerned about liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state, but the most alarming moment came later when Senator Metts made the following comment to Senator Juan Pichardo, a supporter of Marriage Equality:
“Senator Pichardo, we’re good buddies, and [marriage equality] is probably the only issue we disagree on. The problems you cited in society, the problem is that the further we move away from this [Metts held up his Bible] the more problems you’re going to see. When you align with scripture, that’s when you see things get a little bit better.”
Metts might disagree with Pichardo on the issue of equality, but in calling for a theocratic form of government based on the Bible instead of our current system of secular democracy Metts is demonstrating a disagreement with the entire system of American government and the oath he took to uphold the Constitution when he was sworn into office.
What is the difference, aside from the title of the book involved, between Metts’ view of a government based on his Bible and a fundamentalist Muslim advocating for Sharia law? One answer is that Metts can get elected as a Christian fundamentalist, but no Muslim with comparable views would stand a chance. Recall that Metts considers denigrating the Bible to be blasphemy. The Biblical punishment for blasphemy is death.
Can Metts really want our society to align with Biblical scripture? Such an idea is barbaric.
Later, after listening to a story from Jen Saarinen, a concerned high school teacher worried that feelings of inferiority might take hold in LGBTQ students concerned about their second class status as citizens in a state without Marriage Equality, and about the effects of bullying on LGBTQ teens, Metts claimed that as an educator with 31 years of experience, he felt the rules of the school protected everyone, and though he had to protect many students, they “really never had that problem back then.” That problem being LGBTQ kids being bullied.
This of course, is a classic tactic in the fight against rules in public schools that add sexual preference and gender identification to race, religion, disability and other identifiers of diversity that need to be protected against bigotry and bullying. Brian Camenker of MassResistance, a friend and ally of Metts, constantly rails against new codes that might protect LGBTQ students.
Metts’ solution to the problem of bullying is as predictable as it is fatuous. “I wonder if there’s a correlation to when they took the Ten Commandments out of public buildings. I wonder if there’s a correlation when they took prayer out of the schools. I wonder if there’s a correlation as we try to remove God from his creation that we had the Columbine and the other tragedies. So these are some of the things that I see.” Metts added that he has seen kids in schools “chastised for their religious beliefs, and that shouldn’t happen either.” Metts provided no examples of the ongoing bullying that Christian kids receive in schools, or any evidence that Christian kids are on the receiving end of more bullying than LGBTQ kids.
In my own testimony before the committee I tried to make the point that religious concerns are incidental to the question at hand. Marriage equality is a secular issue, and all questions as to whether it violates someone’s religious beliefs are beside the point. I said that the ideas that “homosexuality is an abomination” or that “marriage equality is God’s will” are unimportant. The two positions not only talk at cross-purposes and to no avail, but to a Humanist/atheist like myself the two positions are equally nonsensical.
Metts replied to my testimony by completely missing my point. Metts proceeded to read the Bible to me, specifically the Gospel of Matthew 14:4-5. I wonder if Metts would have thought it appropriate to read from his holy book if someone declared their Jewish or other non-Christian beliefs? In point of fact, Metts avoided going after any other non-Christians directly. Metts reserved his highhanded Christian authoritarianism for the first person who identified as an atheist. This is in itself a form of Christian privilege and bullying, the kind that Metts denies happens in public schools.
Metts is an active supporter of the Faith Alliance, a group I have identified time and again as being at least in part an anti-LGBTQ hate group due to its inclusion of Brian Camenker’s MassResistance. Metts named checked the Faith Alliance as he complemented Pastor David Rodriguez, one of the architects of the group. I’m sure Metts sees the Faith Alliance as operating without hate, and would certainly repudiate the views of Brian Camenker if given the chance. On the other hand, here’s a photo of Metts and Camenker taken during the ant-Marriage Equality Rally back in January. They seem like good friends.
Though it did not seem like it at the time, perhaps I affected Metts with my testimony after all, as an hour after I left the building he brought me up in a rambling, nearly incoherent eight minute long religious sermon. Metts’ speech was a blatant and embarrassing display of Senatorial privilege and religious entitlement. Referring to the written testimony I handed in, Metts said:
“The Humanist/atheist said that maybe there’s 37% of the population classify themselves as nonbelievers. Well I’m not surprised by that because what happened was that they took the Ten Commandments out of the school they took the prayers out of the school and if you’re a Christian kid in school today, you’re chastised… If anybody is chastised, it’s Christians!“
Playing off the testimony of another speaker, Metts continued, “You know, the whole notion of looking to government to justify sin, that resonated because we’re all sinners. We know that.”
Then, in case anyone was wondering how Deacon Metts became so expert in the minutia of God’s will and the truth of his particular form of Christianity, Metts kindly explained:
“As far as knowing God’s word, how I know God’s word is, I study it. Bible study. I’ve got a guide in the back of my Bible. I start January 1st, the Old Testament in the morning and the New Testament at night and at the end of the year I’ve read the whole Bible. I’ve been doing it for years.”
Just to be clear, this lesson on religion was paid for by Rhode Island taxpayers, on Rhode Island taxpayers’ time.
Metts believes that when he needs to know something, “God will reveal it to me in scripture.”
Metts then went on to make his second impassioned case for Jesus Christ. “When we accept Christ we are all indwelled by the Holy Spirit and if we tap into that power, that’s how we interpret scripture…. The whole goal of reading scripture is to become Christ-like… God loves the sinner but he hates the sinner, and the only way we can get that sin off of us is to accept Jesus.”
Metts ended his tirade with more than a tinge of paranoia. “Up in Canada, with the hate speech, if I read scripture against homosexuals, I could end up in jail. So now everything came out the closet, and they’re trying to put the Christians in the closet. I’m not going in the closet for no one.”
Twice during the long night of testimony Metts attempted to make a comment in response to a witness, and then shut down the witnesses’ ability to respond. The first time came when he was speaking to Jen Saarinen, the High School teacher concerned with LGBTQ bullying, and the second time was to John Reilly, an Evangelical who apologized for the behavior of some of the Christians opposed to Marriage Equality. The video shows Metts angrily and unsuccessfully trying to get Committee Chair Michael McCaffrey to stop Reilly from talking back to him. These assertions of Senatorial privilege, even though in both cases Metts was unable to silence the witnesses, is unfortunate in a country and state that values freedom of expression.
John Reilly was far from the only person to counter the views of Metts in his testimony. Rabbi Barry Dolinger, the youngest Rabbi in the Rhode Island, representing an Orthodox Judaism that firmly rejects homosexual marriage, nonetheless believes that marriage equality is a secular issue. Just as he does not want laws passed that would restrict his ability to practice his faith the way he sees fit, so does he also understand the necessity of allowing people of other faiths (and no faith) to practice (or not practice) as they see fit.
Rabbi Dolinger strongly supports marriage equality, taking a brave stance for true religious liberty and liberty of conscience, one that Senator Metts and other conservative Christian leaders (including Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Providence Catholic Diocese) should take note of.
Dolinger pointed out that his people have been the historical victims of religious persecution for centuries, culminating in the holocaust, but he also pointed out what many might see as lesser slights against his people. Dolinger explained that his parents were forced to pray Christian prayers when they went to public schools. These would be the same sort of Christian prayer that Senator Lombardi fought so hard for when he was on the Cranston School Committee and Senator Metts laments the removal of.
Rabbi Dolinger rebuked Metts directly with the following passage from his testimony:
“I don’t want to believe anything that anyone wants me to believe. If I did that I’d have to be a Catholic in the State of Rhode Island and have to do all sorts of other things but I’m not! I don’t believe in Jesus, and I’m not gonna. And I don’t want anybody telling me I’m going to do that, so I’m not going to tell anyone else that because I wouldn’t marry them that they can’t get married.”
Rabbi Dolinger closed his powerful and compelling testimony by reading from George Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue. Washington, in describing not only the United States but also Rhode Island’s key place within the Union said that our government “to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance- but generously afford(s) to all Liberty of conscience and immunities of Citizenship.”
Many took Senator Metts and other Christian and Catholic fundamentalists to task for their intransigence on the issue, including Reverend Gene Dyszlewski, Reverend Duane Clinker, Rabbi Amy Levin, Rabbi Peter Stein and more. The clerics offered a mix of religious and secular arguments, and presented a welcome counterpoint to the intolerant drumbeat of Senator Metts, Pastors like Jay Stirnemann who stunned the crowd when he told Senator Stephen Archambault, “You don’t know God, sir!” and the omnipresent Father Healey, lobbyist for the Providence Catholic Diocese.
The downside of this kind of debate within the chambers of the State House is gives the false impression that the State House is the place for this kind of debate.
It is not.
Certainly it is difficult for people to leave their deeply held religious convictions at the door when entering into government service, but if, as Frank Lombardi maintained, you cannot “defrock yourself” of these beliefs or as Metts later claimed, “I don’t know if I can separate myself from my religion. I cannot cut myself in half” then perhaps government service is beyond the abilities of some people.
At one point in the long night of testimony Senator (or should I call him Deacon?) Metts quoted Jesus as having said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s” to which conservative Pastor Jay Stirnemann said, “I pay my taxes.”
Isn’t it amazing that Jesus, who spoke in parables that are interpreted and reinterpreted and used to justify any manner of beliefs, in this one case was speaking quite clearly only on tax law? Is it not possible that Jesus was explaining that there is a natural separation between Caesar (government) and God (religion)?
Even Rabbi Dolinger gets this, and he’s never gonna believe in Jesus.