By Mathew Goldstein
American Atheist’s report on Maryland state laws covers the state government issues of concern across the nation. American Atheists did a good job overall. They grouped the laws into subcategories under four major categories, and I will attempt to retain that organization. The focus here is to identify some Maryland state law issues that are not mentioned in the American Atheists report. Maybe some of these additional issues will be added to their future reports. See Secular Maryland issue statements https://secularmaryland.dorik.io/Issues. Register to join the Secular Maryland email list from https://secularmaryland.dorik.io/.
But first, some general comments. The laws of concern are categorized by AA as negative, anti-secular laws, we oppose and positive, pro-secular laws, we support. Some of those issues are correlated with our two party duopoly partisan divide. Because Maryland has a Democratic Party majority in both the House and Senate, negative law bills that correlate with a Republican agenda are either not submitted, or when submitted repeatedly fail to reach, let alone pass, a floor vote. Nevertheless, Maryland has negative laws that are supported, or at least not challenged, by lawmakers, and is lacking various positive laws. To some extent both parties exhibit a pro-religion bias (many lawmakers are religious clerics), and to some extent a secularist perspective is not on the Maryland General Assembly agenda because as a community we do not prioritize lobbying Maryland state government.
Having said that, Secular Maryland was joined by all of the national secularist organizations, and the ACLU, in submitted testimony this year on behalf of the bills proposing amending the state constitution to remove the unenforceable, offensive, and archaic provisions excluding ontological naturalists (a.k.a. non-theists) from holding government office, being jurors, or testifying in court. The Attorney General’s Office submitted testimony favoring the bills. For the first time this bill was submitted twice, once in each chamber (HB0872 and SB0932 “Declaration of Rights - Religious Freedom, Religious Tests, and Oaths and Affirmations”). The first time Senate sponsor, Senator Muse, is a Pentecostal Bishop, the repeat Delegate sponsor is Delegate Hill. Neither copy of the bill was reported out, favorably or unfavorably, by the assigned committees.
Our agenda should not be limited to what is popular, what is high priority or most important, or what is most likely to be accepted and implemented. Nor are laws the only issues of concern. Sometimes the issue is government actions, or non-actions. The AA report does not cover government sponsored religious displays. Maryland continues to display the Bladensburg Peace Cross. That the Supreme Court endorsed government sponsorship of this religious display does not obligate Maryland to continue to sponsor it. Maryland government would be more inclusive, not less inclusive, without this, or any other, government sponsored crucifixion cross.
Under the subcategory religious exemptions to enforcement, AA says we lack negative laws for each of four subcategories. The report does not mention that there are religion based exemptions from insurance regulations, health care sharing ministries, and contraceptive insurance coverage. There are also exemptions from cemetery laws.
The AA report does not mention religious holiday observance as a subcategory. Here we have commercial activity restrictions (Blue laws), Sunday recreational activity restrictions, and government closure laws (Christmas and Friday before, and Monday after, Easter). Omitted from the report is the theistic pledge of allegiance mandate (for public schools, with no opt out for teachers and with self-contradictory language regarding student participation). There is government sponsored prayer during government meetings. When the public is invited to give invocations we (probably?) can volunteer to give an explicitly ontologically naturalist invocation. At the same time we should not shy away from asking that prayer not be on the agenda of government meetings even if people respond with frowns, eye rolls, and falsely accuse us of being “angry” or “militant”. Again, just because the Supreme Court says prayer can be on the agenda of government meetings does not obligate government meetings to do that. Government meetings would be more inclusive, not less inclusive, without prayer on the meeting agenda.
The AA report lists four denial of care laws. Maryland fails on two of them - it has negative refusal laws for abortion and sterilization. Omitted from the report are negative religion based exemption laws for Syphilis screening, vision and hearing screening, and congenital heart disease screening, all of which are tangibly harmful to innocent children.
An important issue that is missing from the AA report is medical treatment refusal right to know laws. I know AA supports such right to know laws so maybe this issue will eventually be added to their report. Maryland lacks such a law (as do the other states). A national lobby is needed for this, similar to the national lobbying groups for state end of life laws. Ideally, medical facilities would be required to provide the full range of medical treatments that they are qualified to provide. Given the absence of this mandate we are entitled to know which particular treatments are not being provided by those medical facilities that refuse to provide them, invariably because of non-medical, religion based, edicts.
I think secularists should actively oppose laws supporting so-called “alternative medicine”. Maryland licenses practitioners of naturopathy who are allowed to sell so-called “treatments” such as homeopathy. The Center for Inquiry has been actively opposing bogus medical treatments. There is a lawsuit against CVS, Walmart, and Amazon for selling junk homeopathic “medicine”. They should win. However, when a religious institution claims that their freedom to exercise their religious beliefs is being infringed we cannot rely on our federal government to consistently uphold common sense, particularly now that Supreme Court has abandoned the wrongly disparaged Lemon Test (which should be reinstated).
One more comment. Some of the issues surrounding transgender issues regarding sports participation and medical treatment are multi-faceted. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the ACLU, and American Atheists, among others, tend to address transgender issues from the point of view of supporting “affirmative” medical treatment and participation in sports aligned with gender orientation without restrictions. I confess that I am more cautious here. Skepticism is an important component of proper medical treatment, there is some evidence that younger people in particular who seek medical transition are likely to have subsequent regrets, and puberty results in physical changes that impact sports performance (for many sports) and persists. These are real complications that should not be disregarded. Facts are neither left wing nor right wing. An eagerness for equity and diversity, should not override a commitment to policies that balance all of the relevant, available, evidence derived, facts. To understand this issue properly I recommend Sabine Hoffensteder’s recent commentary Is being trans a social fad among teenagers? This General Assembly session passed an affirmative transgender care bill.