Rules Are for Schmucks: Embedding Church in State in Illinois

Illinois State Capitol building (Photo by Meagan Davis)

Who says there’s nothing new under the sun?

Both houses of the Illinois legislature have passed and sent on to the governor something genuinely new in America: a bill to create a state board to advance the interests of a particular religious sect.

SB 574, which now awaits the signature of Gov. Bruce Rauner, states that its purpose is “to advance the role…of Muslim Americans in this State.” It will create a “Muslim American Advisory Council” of twenty-one members to accomplish this purpose. Some members will be appointed by the governor, and the rest will be appointed by leaders of the legislature—plenty of politicians will have plum appointments to dish out.

Members of the council will serve without pay. However, it will be far from free from a taxpayer standpoint. The bill itself provides that the council will receive staff support from the office of the governor, and you can bet that the meeting rooms, printed materials, and halal coffee and donuts will be paid for by Illinois taxpayers as well.

No other state legislature in America has created an official Muslim council.

For that matter, I believe it is the case (though I haven’t completely nailed it down) that no other state legislature in America has created an official state council to promote the interests of any particular religion. There is a federal Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council (also a bad idea, as far as I’m concerned). But it has a narrow scope of advising on a specific federal program to facilitate getting government social service grants to religious groups. It has no mandate to advance the interests of religion in general—much less the interests of a particular denomination.

Alabama doesn’t have a Baptist Advisory Council. Rhode Island doesn’t have a Catholic Advisory Council. New York doesn’t have a Jewish Advisory Council. Utah doesn’t have a Mormon Advisory Council (though, on reflection, it doesn’t really need one). Unless someone can produce evidence otherwise, it looks like Illinois is about to set a horrible precedent for official religious entanglement with government.

There is a reason for this void. It’s called the US Constitution. Neither Congress nor the states are supposed to be making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” Advancing the role of members of one particular sect sure seems to me like “respecting an establishment of religion.” Unfortunately, the Supreme Court in recent years has pretty well erased the Establishment Clause by denying most plaintiffs the standing to enforce it. But there’s another clause in the Constitution—Article VI, paragraph 3: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.”

Are they planning to appoint non-Muslims to this “office”? That would seem to be utterly contrary to the council’s raison d’etre. But if they don’t, there would seem to be a slam-dunk violation of Article VI. The bill itself says that the council must be “diverse with respect to race, ethnicity, age, gender, and geography”—but says nothing about being diverse with respect to religion, which would be silly.

There is some diversity, of course, within Islam itself. So it seems likely that the notoriously anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, which is headquartered in Illinois, would be prominently represented on any official Illinois Muslim Council.

Should Muslims have a voice in government? Of course they should, and their particular point of view on a variety of issues should be heard and respected. The same as the point of view of Presbyterians, plumbers, cancer patients, backpackers, and thousands of other special interest groups. It’s called the democratic system and the free marketplace of ideas. The Muslim viewpoint deserves neither less nor more official status than that of anyone else.

Muslims and the rest of the God lobby already play an enormous role in influencing government. A Pew study from a few years ago describes hundreds of different religious lobbying organizations in Washington, DC, alone that employ over a thousand people and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, it shows as many Muslim lobbying groups as mainline Protestant lobbying groups. One such Muslim group, CAIR, has been vigorously supporting the successful Illinois bill—proving that its voice is already heard and heeded.

One aspect of the bill’s progression that is curious—ok, suspicious—is the lack of opposition from the Christian press. The usual anti-Islam screamers like Pamela Gellar are in high dudgeon, but there’s nary a peep from outlets like the Christian Post (which vented full fury against the construction of a mosque near the World Trade Center a few years back), or even the Georgia Baptist official who insists that Islam is “more of a geopolitical movement than a religion” and therefore not entitled to “religious freedom.” Could it possibly be that they are quietly waiting for the camel’s nose to plant itself firmly inside the tent, then to begin clamoring for their own official state government advocacy councils?

If Gov. Rauner signs this bill, then give me a quick reason why every other religion shouldn’t get its own official council too, in Illinois and elsewhere. Are Muslims that much more worthy than everyone else?

The bill text states that Muslims constitute the third largest religious group in Illinois, behind only “Roman Catholics and independent Evangelical Christians.” This is nonsense. There are way more nonbelievers in Illinois than there are Muslims, and according to Pew Research there are even more “Nones” in Illinois than there are Evangelical Christians. But it’ll be a cold day in hell before Illinois or any other state creates an advisory council to advance the interests of nonbelievers—a group that gets singled out for official and unofficial mistreatment far more than even Muslims do. Equal protection, anyone?

There is at least a sliver of hope here, because Gov. Rauner hasn’t yet signed the bill. But it looks like he’s going to. After all, his candidacy was endorsed in 2014 by the Urban Muslim Minority Alliance. Religion—politics—government: the iron triangle strikes again.