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Two weeks ago, we spoke out for Atheist civil rights and the separation of church and state at the GOP convention. The Democrats meet next week in Los Angeles: should we back off and support Al Gore? Maybe not...

by Conrad F. Goeringer
August 8, 2020

Like a feuding pair of superpowers during the cold war, Republicans and Democrats seem locked in an escalating feud over which party and slate of candidates can do more to invoke religion and “values” during the year 2000 election campaign. The early lead went to the GOP. Their Philadelphia convention, despite the veneer of inclusion and moderation, couldn’t help but sound at times like a religious revival. The rhetoric may be less strident than in past elections, but presidential wanna’be George W. Bush is no stranger when it comes to rudely putting the First Amendment separation of church and state in the back of the campaign bus -- dare we say leaving it by the side of the highway? -- with his ambitious plans to take the Texas theocracy scheme nationwide. Vouchers for religious schools? As George W. told the convention, “it won’t be long now!” Schemes to divert public money to faith-based groups through charitable choice and “partnerships”? You betcha’, pardner. School prayer, maybe some restrictions on abortion? That’s a big Lone Star State 10-4, buddy!

Until recently, Al Gore was, at best, a shoddy imitation. After eight years as White House stage prop, Gore is still trying to crawl out from under the shadow of Bill Clinton whom the Republicans have fairly well managed to unfairly tar as a modern day Lothario, one step perhaps below the Prince of Infernal Evil himself. Republicans have spent the last two presidential elections hating Clinton the man, perhaps because they were dreadfully short of issues when it came to dealing with Clinton the politician. With a rosy economy, low unemployment -- hey, do we remember Ronald Reagan asking “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” (Answer for most folks: Hell yes!) -- record profits and more money in the pockets of middle class voters, it’s difficult to stir up much of a storm at the ballot box.

Gore still feels compelled, though, to run scared, and do everything possible to distance himself from the persistent Republican charge that the nation is in some kind of moral crisis, in part because of Bill Clinton. Virtue czar Bill Bennett’s face resembles the upper end of the electromagnetic spectrum with its various hues of red, orange and white hot every time he is asked about Clinton on a Sunday morning talk show. George W. has even managed to deflect questions about his character and background, promising instead that he will restore morality and probity to the White House. Al Gore reacts, feeling the heat, and moves steadily to the right.

Which brings us to the question before this court of commentary; Should we take to the streets in Los Angeles at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and speak out on the same sorts of issues Dave Silverman and his contingent did last month in Philadelphia?

I raise the question because of an e-mail from Eddie Tabash, who is running for a seat in a state legislature, openly he says, as an atheist. He admits that we are right in feeling “frustration” with both of the major candidates for president who “display religiosity on their sleeves as some kind of badge of merit.” He points out, though, that the critical issue in the upcoming national election may well be the fact that the next president could appoint candidates to the U.S. Supreme Court. So goes the court, he reasons -- correctly -- so goes much of the separation of church and state.

Eddie stops short of demanding that we not demonstrate in Los Angeles. He notes that “The arithmetic of the Supreme Court is beyond dispute,” and that the magic number for deciding any case is five. Some of the recent cases have been more lopsided, but the point is well taken, especially when you consider what the loss of, say, a Justice John Paul Stevens might be and his replacement with an ideological clone of Clarence Thomas, or Antonin Scalia. In an open letter, Tabash pleads: “Thus, I am hoping that if any of you demonstrate at the Democratic Convention, particularly if you do so as a group of atheists, that you do nothing that will increase Bush’s chances of becoming our next president.”

American Atheists does not endorse partisan candidates. We speak to issues; and frankly, one would be hard put to find a major candidate from either party who could enthusiastically be supported as a staunch civil libertarian, advocate of Reason, and defender of the separation of church and state. We are in the ideological twilight zone of lesser evil politics. We know the record of George Bush. We also know that the Clinton-Gore administration has managed to give us the 1996 Welfare Reform Act -- another major breach in Jefferson’s wall which brings sectarian groups a big step closer to public funding -- and are on the brink of expanding that legislation by setting up so-called “Renewal Community” programs and passing J.C. Watts’ American Community Renewal Act. Then there’s RFRA/RLPA/RLUIPA, which is an alphabet soup of bills which supposedly guarantee “religious liberty” by giving any church, mosque or temple a one-up on the legal system. By the way, RLUIPA has been passed in the Senate and House, and is sitting on Bill Clinton’s desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, awaiting his signature. He’s sure to sign it.

As bad as the Republicans are when it comes to the First Amendment, Al Gore doesn’t prompt much “faith” from us either. Gore was first out of the gate when it came to proposing “faith-based partnerships” between your wallet or pocketbook and the bank accounts of religious organizations, a full two months before George W. Bush announced his scheme for a similar cozy arrangement. Then there’s Joe Lieberman. Couldn’t have Al Gore at least tried to resist the Siren call of echoing Republican rhetoric, and picked someone else? Lieberman is a political nightmare if you are a First Amendment voluptuary, and especially if you happen to be a musician with an out-of-tune guitar and some angry, salacious lyrics. When Bill and Al ran eight years ago, there was an admitted strategy inside the Democratic party to put Tipper Gore and her crusade for culture warning labels on the political back burner. With Joe Lieberman in the number two slot now, and with Gore attempting to contrast himself as a Prince Valiant kinda’ guy, these hoary culture war issues which have traditionally been the playground of angry, rich, white and mostly male Republicans are sure to find their way into the Democratic campaign.

Eddie Tabash is right on one point, though. Gore, if elected, may be more likely to appoint the kinds of justices to the Supreme Court who will hopefully meddle the least in what’s left of the Bill of Rights. (Let’s not forget things like the V-chip, attempts at internet censorship, snooping cops both on and off the information superhighway and much more...). With Al Gore, we might have a life jacket, whereas George Bush is the iceberg in search of the Titanic.

So, should we consider marching next Monday, August 14 in Los Angeles?

You bet.

People are still free to vote for the candidate of their choice, or not vote at all. We are not, incidentally, out there to suggest that atheists and separationists pull the lever or punch the card for Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan (if you happen to be so inclined to the right), or Harry Browne. Some may choose to abstain.

The reason for marching is twofold.

First, there is the issue of visibility. Every other cause group is out in the public square grabbing media face time, advertising their issues, trying to be heard. You may not agree that picketing is the way, or even one way to do that. Fine. We hope that you do whatever you think works... We would certainly not denounce, criticize or put down any other group or individual who felt differently about this, and let’s hope that there is some mutual respect and reciprocity over this question of tactics.

Second, we are not marching for or against a particular party or candidate. This is about issues. Both parties need to be “put on notice” that, yes, Atheists are here. Candidates seems to be forgetting that fact as they rush from church to temple to mosque searching for voting blocks and focus groups. What about us? And what about the issues?

Political candidates rarely take the initiative when it comes to enunciating issues. Restrained by their handlers and pollsters, they hold up a wet thumb in hopes of testing the political wind. They move only in response to popular pressure and movement. Lyndon Johnson was no lover of civil rights, and was about as close to a Texas Dixiecrat as you could get. He read the political winds though, and realized that his good fortune resided in supporting a civil rights agenda.

No, we’re not marching “against Bush” or “against Gore.” We’re raising some issues that neither of these candidates seem willing to take up or acknowledge in the arena of public discourse and debate. Perhaps when we raise them widely enough and loudly enough, a candidate will listen. It is quite possible for someone to march outside of the Democratic National Convention next week carrying a sign opposing the policy of using tax money to fund sectarian groups, and still vote for Al Gore. Maybe with a higher level of mental gymnastic ability, they could have also marched in Philadelphia, and still end up voting for George Bush. Whatever. Atheists come in all political persuasions.

Those of you who support Al Gore may want to join us next Monday just to make sure that in the avalanche of political rhetoric about God, Motherhood and apple pie virtues, the substance of real ideas does not get lost in the mix. You might also want to check out Joe Lieberman’s background, and do some hard thinking about what faces atheists and separationists in the next four years if Al Gore is elected. Eddie rightfully talks about the scenario of the next president appointing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Political bills come due, so let us now forget about Joseph Lieberman who is sure to be in a strong position of influence even if he is across the street in the Old Executive Office Building.

I like the letter from Dave Kong, California State Director for American Atheists about this issue of whether or not to demonstrate next Monday, so he gets the last word here. Of Eddie Tabash’s e-mail he says,

“While I agree with him on many points, Gore and the Democrats are still pandering with the religious vote in mind, and the separation of church and state IS an apologetic footnote that both candidates are ignoring... I see no reason why we shouldn’t attempt to get our point of view across.

“Frankly, just because we are demonstrating on these specific issues does not necessarily mean that I am not voting for Gore. I agree with W.C. Fields in that I never vote for anyone -- I always vote against -- and I do NOT want Bush...”

See you next Monday in L.A.!

[Note: If you have opinion to share on this topic, please visit our discussion board. We are talking about this topic in the Activism forum.]


I am Eddie Tabash, I chair the National Legal Committee for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I also chair the Council for Secular Humanism in Los Angeles. This year, I was additionally the only openly atheist candidate to be a major contender for a state legislative seat in the United States.

I understand the frustration that we non believers feel when both of the major candidates for president display religiosity on their sleeves as some kind of badge of merit. However, as free thinkers and rationalists, we must look beyond form to substance and perceive reality as it actually is. While both Bush and Gore have made verbal concessions to weakening the wall of separation of church and state, there is a gigantic gulf between the two candidates. The gulf is so vast that the very survival of atheism as a legally protected viewpoint may depend on who wins this election.

The Supreme Court is the only branch of government that has the final word on what the First Amendment means and how it is to be applied. Since 1947, the Court has consistently held that no branch of government may favor belief over non belief and that no branch of government may manifest any prejudicial behavior towards non believers. No branch of government is permitted to single out believers for more benefits than are available to non believers.

However, if Bush is elected and puts just two, let alone more, people on the Court, this will change. There are already three justices, including the Chief Justice, who hold the view that all branches of government should be permitted to favor belief over non belief so long as they do not favor one religion over another. Thus, if these three obtain just two more allies, for the first time ever, all government bodies will be freed to single out only non believers for a lesser panoply of rights than what is provided to believers.

While Gore’s comments, early last year, about distributing government welfare payments through churches, do constitute a violation of the separation of church and state, his proposals are more modest than Bush’s; and, of most importance to us, Gore would put people on the Supreme Court who would declare these very policies unconstitutional.

Let me provide a crucial example. In 1992, then candidate, Bill Clinton, criticized the Supreme Court decision banning clergy conducted prayer at public high school graduation ceremonies. Yet, as president, he appointed two justices to the Supreme Court who have consistently voted to uphold the very principles of church/state separation that undergird the very decision that, as a candidate, he said went too far. If Bush Sr. had been reelected in 1992, we would no longer have church/state separation, because he would have made the two Supreme Court appointments that Clinton made.

Accordingly, had Clinton lost in 1992, rather than now having a 6 to 3 majority on the Court that holds that no branch of government can favor belief over non belief, we would have now had a 5 to 4 majority freeing every branch of government in the nation to favor belief over non belief, if that is what that particular branch of government, be it federal, state, or local, would now want to do.

In his December 1999 debate with Bill Bradley, Gore explicitly stated that he believes that atheists have just as much right as believers to fully participate in the political process of our nation. When asked to describe his ideal Supreme Court justice, Bush named Scalia, who is committed to empowering all branches of government with the option of discriminating against non believers. When asked the same thing, Gore mentioned Harry Blackmun, one of the staunchest ever defenders of full equality between believers and non believers.

The Supreme Court and only the Supreme Court decides what the law of the land will be in matters of religious liberty and church/state separation. With Gore actively looking to replace retiring justices with people in the mold of Blackmun, we will be safe. With Bush actively looking to replace retiring justices with people like Scalia, we will be in grave danger.

Some people argue that even with religious right sympathizing presidents, we can still get civil libertarian justices. This a gamble we can no longer afford to risk. It’s true that Bush, Sr. gave us Justice Souter. However, his intent was to give the nation a justice who would destroy church/state separation. A year later, he got his revenge on those of us for whom Souter turned out to be an ally, by inflicting Clarence Thomas on the country. Thomas, along with Rehnquist and Scalia, makes up the three vote bloc on the Court that would abolish recognition of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

It is too great a risk to have to shake in fear, hoping that an otherwise religious right sympathizing president will make a miscalculation and, by mistake, inadvertently, give us another Justice Souter. Our odds are much better if we have a president whose intent is to give us a church/state separationist in the first place. With up to four vacancies on the Court to be filled by the next president, we can no longer afford to play Russian Roulette with the Constitution and risk having a president whose intent is to destroy our freedoms, while we helplessly hope that he miscalculates enough appointments to the Court so that our interests can still somehow, if barely, survive.

The next Justice to retire, due to age and poor health, is Justice Stevens, who is the strongest church/state separationist on the Court. The next is Justice O’Connor. Although she is considered somewhat of a “conservative,” she is firmly committed to the principle that no branch of government should be permitted to display any favoritism for believers over non believers. If Bush is successful in his choices to replace each of these two, then there will be a five vote majority on the Court, that is, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas, will have the two additional votes they need to dismantle the separation of church and state and to usher in a new era of now legally permitted second class citizenship for the non religious.

Thus, even though all of our free thought groups are 501(c)(3) entities and cannot organizationally endorse candidates, as individuals, if we care about the preservation of our equal rights as non believers, we must elect Gore. I know that a number of you are planning to demonstrate at the Democratic Convention here in Los Angeles. As a practical matter, where it truly counts, on the issue of the Supreme Court, Gore is our ally. If we embarrass him or try to hurt his chances, we are slitting our own throats as atheists.

The arithmetic of the Supreme Court is beyond dispute. We non believers always pride ourselves on our scientific rationalism, on our mathematical precision. Well, here we need only count to 5. This is the magic number on the Supreme Court. In terms of the law of the land, on any topic, the moment 5 justices on the Court agree on any point in any given case, that perspective is then cemented into ironclad law.

We non believers cannot afford to do anything that could help Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas acquire the two more allies they need to do us in. Thus, I am hoping that if any of you demonstrate at the Democratic Convention, particularly if you do so as a group of atheists, that you do nothing that will increase Bush’s chances of becoming our next president. Even if you disagree with Gore on many issues, as atheists, we must choose our priorities. There is no cause, no issue, of greater urgency and immediacy to us non believers than who will choose the next members of the Supreme Court. Mathematically, any vote or assistance to Ralph Nader, for instance, is a technical vote for Bush. Realistically, and again, we atheists always pride ourselves on our realism, only one of two people will be our next president, Bush or Gore.

So, if you still have any doubts, think some more, and then help Gore.

Eddie Tabash
8484 Wilshire Boulevard
Suite 850
Beverly Hills, California 90211
323-655-3743 Fax


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