Christian conservatives in the State of Washington recently held a fundraiser on behalf of their proposal to create a new state, adding a fifty-first star to our national flag. The original idea was to split off the eastern half of Washington into its own state, to be called “Liberty.” Now the plan is to suck in parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as well. I suppose if you’re going to fail, doing so on a grander scale adds a certain notoriety.
The idea for splitting up the state isn’t new. Disgruntled politicians in eastern Washington first proposed separating themselves as far back as 1915, and bills to that effect have been introduced periodically ever since. The original stated rationale was economic, the thought being that the rural east was tired of being dominated by Seattle. It’s now clear that secession would be economically painful for the east, which is heavily subsidized by the taxes paid by Seattle-based corporate giants like Boeing and Microsoft. The real motivation, I suspect, is to create more jobs for politicians, especially those who have trouble attracting votes in better-educated, more liberal areas.
Now, though, the secessionists have added a new ally: God. The reason to secede, according to Republican State Rep. Matt Shea, is that the current state legislature has been taken over by “atheists and communists.” This is a Christian nation, he proclaims, and the new state of Liberty will presumably allow at least part of that nation to get back to its alleged roots.
Rep. Shea knows a lot about God. Last fall someone leaked a document he authored called a “Biblical Basis for War.” This document teaches us that “Godless civil rulers are no more than bands of robbers,” that “assassination to remove tyrants is just,” and that “God doesn’t use majorities. The majority is usually wrong.”
Apparently a constitution has been drafted for the new state, however, it’s being kept secret, at least for the time being. Could that constitution explicitly declare Liberty a Christian state, with taxes used to support a Christian hierarchy and laws validated based on their adherence to Christian teaching? At least one justice of the Supreme Court maintains that yes, any state is free to do so if it wants. Clarence Thomas, in his Town of Greece v. Galloway concurring opinion, insists that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause applies only to Congress, not to the states.
The text of the First Amendment as ratified in 1791 backs this up, since it begins with the words “Congress shall make no law,” without mentioning what a state may do. Thomas points out that at the time the amendment was ratified, several states already had established churches, which rolled along for many years afterward. Seven decades later, though, the nation fought a horrific Civil War, the purpose of which was to strengthen federal control over the states. One of the most important consequences of that war was the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which explicitly states that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
The Supreme Court has long maintained that this Fourteenth Amendment language has the effect of imposing the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause on the states. Thomas disagrees, baldly asserting that the privilege of citizens to be immune from the tyranny of an established church is not a “privilege or immunity” of the citizens. This reasoning is bizarre, to say the least. Among other things, it ignores the fact that James Madison, the principal drafter of the First Amendment, was also the moving force behind Virginia’s earlier Statute for Religious Freedom, which states unequivocally “that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
Thomas has recently been joined on the high court by new justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. I’ve read quite a few of their lower court opinions, and both seem to take the result-oriented stance that the religious side always wins, logic and precedent be damned. If there are any more Trump appointees to the court, the Establishment Clause may become little more than a historical oddity.
A state under the thumb of a religious sect would be new, but the same phenomenon is already occurring at the local level. In Florida, Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan created the town of Ave Maria as a Catholic ghetto. One key element, according to Monaghan himself: “If you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won’t be able to get that in Ave Maria Town.” In heavily Jewish East Ramapo, New York, Jews who took over the school board proceeded to decimate funding for public education by shifting thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to subsidize Jewish schools. The school board president’s response to upset parents: “You don’t like it? Find another place to live.” And until recently, the town of Hildale, Utah, was under control of Mormon fundamentalists, providing a safe haven for polygamy and sexual abuse.
Of course, the new Christian-dominated Liberty State will never happen. Not only would the Washington legislature have to agree, but Congress would have to act as well. It’s so farfetched it’s not worth worrying about. It’s almost as farfetched as the prospect this time four years ago that Donald Trump, of all people, stood the slightest chance of being taken seriously as a candidate for president.