Saturday, August 24, 2013

Religious privileging in Maryland laws

By Mathew Goldstein

Laws that accommodate religious beliefs are sometimes appropriate, and even necessary, to respect individual religious liberty.  Laws should make a reasonable effort to accommodate religious beliefs, even when the religious beliefs are themselves foolish and deserving of disrespect (as is often the case).  Legal accommodation of some peoples' religious beliefs becomes unreasonable religious privileging when it is not protecting free exercise or when it infringes upon other peoples' freedom, civic equality, health, or safety.  Maryland law, like most other state law, includes some religious privileging.  Following are some examples, this is not a comprehensive summary of all such laws in this state.

There are a number of provisions in Maryland that accommodate faith healing.  Faith healing is a good example of a foolish religious belief that arguably negatively impacts primarily the religious believer and thus is at least partially protected as a religious liberty.  But Maryland law sometimes goes further and grants parents the ability to deny prudent medical care for their children. 

Most notable in this category is a religious exemption from a law that requires pregnant women to be tested for syphilis when they first become pregnant and again during the final trimester.  About 50 percent of pregnant women with untreated early syphilis end up with a baby who's infected. That's compared to 1 to 2 percent of women who get treated (thanks to atheist and materialist medicine that some people mistakenly characterize as exhibiting a methodological naturalism bias). They may lose the baby in miscarriage, stillbirth, or soon after birth, or the baby may be born with severe neurological problems. Syphilis also increases the risk of preterm birth and intrauterine growth restriction. This religious exemption from syphilis testing of pregnant women in Maryland is unconscionable and should be eliminated.  Other examples of questionable religious privileging in Maryland law that undermines the welfare of innocent children are exemptions from hearing, eyesight, and lead poisoning screening and from vaccinations.

Clergy are partially exempted from reporting child abuse revelations to law enforcement and judicial authorities.  Maryland law also has a second provision that broadly exempts clergy from testifying as a witness in judicial hearings "... on any matter in relation to any confession or communication made to him in confidence by a person seeking his spiritual advice or consolation."  Parents should think twice before passing their children over to religious institutions in Maryland.

Article 37 of the Declaration of Rights in Maryland's constitution  permits "... a declaration of belief in the existence of God" mandate "... as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State".  The U.S. Supreme Court declared this provision of Maryland law to be a violation of the first and fourteenth amendments in 1961, however this law has still not been amended to comply with the federal constitution.  Oaths of office for the National Guard and the Maryland Defense Force include a "So help me God" appeal.  Article 10 of the Rules of Interpretation contradicts these oaths while still incorporating an appeal to a god as follows:

The form of judicial and all other oaths to be taken or administered in this State, and not prescribed by the Constitution, shall be as follows: “In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly promise or declare”, etc. And it shall not be lawful to add to any oath the words “So help me God”, or any imprecatory words whatever.

Article 36 of the Declaration of Rights permits anyone who does not believe "... in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefor either in this world or in the world to come" to be involuntarily disqualified from serving as a juror or witness.  This Article was amended in 1970 but the amendment did nothing to eliminate this religious privileging.  Instead, the amendment endorsed government establishment of theism by adding this sentence:  "Nothing shall prohibit or require the making reference to belief in, reliance upon, or invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, ceremony, school, institution, or place."

The theistic Pledge of Allegiance must be recited in public schools.  There is an opt out provision for both students and teachers.  Laws like this make it difficult for people to keep their personal beliefs private.  And children in particular shouldn't be instructed by the state that theism is the more patriotic belief.

There are exemptions from sales and property taxes for religious organizations, including a parsonage exemption from property tax.  Another provision gives localities the option of refunding part or all of the property tax that religious organizations would otherwise be required to pay.  There are also regulation exemptions for religious organizations regarding cemeteries, obtaining a trader's license, and erecting advertisement signs.


Edd.Doerr said...

Yes, MD has some lingering church-state problems, but fewer than most states. On the whole, MD is fairly secular and progressive. In 1972 and 1974 MD voters rejected tax aid for church schools. In 1992 MD voters by a strong margin voted to retain the protections of Roe v Wade. MD has legalized same-sex marriage. MD has only 24 school districts and that has contributed enormously to its educational superiority in national comparisons. If we want to criticize various states, let's start with WI, OH, IN, PA, VA, AZ, TX, NC, AL, MS, LA. -- Edd Doerr

Explicit Atheist said...

Your characterization of Maryland is the same as mine. Overall, Maryland laws are mostly secular and we are more fortunate than people who live in other states and countries. There is also opportunity for improvements in Maryland. My attitude is this: 1) we should all seek improvements to the laws in the state where we live and 2) we should not refrain from seeking improvements in the state in which we live because other states or other natuons are worse, and 3) we should not refrain from seeking improvements in provision A of Article X because provision B of Article C is worse.