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Convention speech: Rep. Jamie Raskin — Democracy requires state-church separation

In this screenshot from a video, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin accepts the Clarence Darrow Award from FFRF. Raskin was unable to be at FFRF’s 2019 national convention in person, so he sent a video to be played to the convention audience. To watch the video, go to

This is an edited version of the video speech made by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin that was shown at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 18, 2019.

By U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin

Hello to all my friends out at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m thrilled to be here with you, even in absentia.

Freedom from religion means freedom of religion, and freedom of religion means freedom from religion because people aren’t going to be able to exercise the religion of their choice or the philosophy of their choice if you have theocrats imposing a particular religious creed on all of society.

Obviously, we’ve got some important things going on in Washington, D.C., and I’m delighted and honored and gratified to receive the Clarence Darrow award.

I’ve got this right by my desk, so Clarence Darrow can keep a close watch over me. I want to thank you for this award, which means a whole lot to me. It’s important to me for a few reasons.

One is that Clarence Darrow was a great lawyer who thought systematically and logically, and I think that that is the mindset we have to try to bring to public things. The second reason is because he was a very passionate crusader against capital punishment.

I remember when I was in law school reading his famous closing argument in the Leopold and Loeb case, and being so moved by what it was that he had to say. I was honored to have a chance in my life to campaign against the death penalty in my home state of Maryland as a state senator. I led the floor fight to abolish the death penalty, which we did in 2013. I invoked Clarence Darrow and tried to carry on in his spirit.

We had a guy who was convicted of the most brutal, grisly, gruesome, rape-murder you ever could have imagined: Kirk Bloodsworth. But he swore that he didn’t do it and he was on death row and we very easily could have executed an innocent man. He read about the advent of DNA evidence and wrote to his lawyer, begged his lawyer, who is now the chief judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court, Judge Richard Morin. He begged him to let him get a DNA test.

They found that evidence, which actually was supposed to have been disposed of, but the judge in the case had an assistant who never believed that Bloodsworth was guilty, and she’d saved the physical evidence in her desk. They found the evidence.

They performed the DNA test and it came back with more than 99.9 percent certainty that it could not have been Bloodsworth. And they actually found a positive DNA match with someone who was already in prison with Bloodsworth a floor beneath him in Maryland. That guy confessed to the crime.

I said on the floor to our friends across the aisle who were defending capital punishment, that the death penalty is a great system for people who think that the government is perfect and the justice system is infallible.

Usually that’s not what we hear from Republicans about the government. Usually they say government can’t do anything right. And here they are saying government couldn’t do anything wrong. But, obviously, in this most extreme of scenarios, the government could very easily do something wrong and we know has convicted hundreds of innocent people. And that’s one principal reason that the death penalty doesn’t function for us.

So, I was proud to be involved in that work of abolishing capital punishment in the state of Maryland. I’m also proud to receive this award because Clarence Darrow was such a magnificent and eloquent champion for the separation of church and state. And here he drew upon the deepest wellsprings of American constitutional and political thought.

Our Founders were enlightenment liberals who rebelled against centuries of religious conflict and religious war. The wars of religion between the Catholics and Protestants in Europe were every bit as brutal and vicious as the wars between Sunni and Shia today in the Muslim world.

Our forefathers and foremothers wanted to go in a different direction. They said, “We want a break from the religious wars, from the Inquisition, from the holy crusades. We want a break from the witchcraft trials and the blasphemy laws, the apostasy laws and the heresy laws. We want to put government on a secular and rational basis.” And that’s why we got our First Amendment. Thank you, James Madison.

We got a First Amendment, which gave everybody a right to freely exercise religion as they see fit — right of freedom of speech and also no establishment of religion.

I think that is what resonates with the name of your strong and growing organization. No establishment of religion, free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to petition government for redress of grievances, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. All of these freedoms of the human mind go together. That was a great breakthrough victory in our Constitution for progress of human society and human understanding. It allowed us to say that government would be concerned with reason and we would try to govern based on reason and based on a passionate commitment to the rights of everyone.

And that’s basically what our whole history has told us. We have a trajectory of freedom in our Constitution and that’s going to be a central commitment of what it means for us to defend American constitutionalism against attack. This is important to me.

I thought Clarence Darrow obviously had a brilliant and stunning performance at the Scopes trial in 1925, although I think it may have been unnecessary to humiliate William Jennings Bryan in the way that he did. We can say that there should be imposition of no religious creeds or orthodoxies, whether or not those religious creeds or orthodoxies are true. By the way, Clarence Darrow voted for Bryan and supported him in the 1896 election.

But when Bryan died five days after the Scopes monkey trial was over, it led to a kind of breach between the enlightened secular separation of church and state forces that tended to be in the big cities, as Clarence Darrow was in Chicago, and the rural populist forces that were fighting against big business exploitation. I don’t think that we needed that split.

And I think that split has been a tough thing for us politically. That divide has lasted up until this day. We need to defend and uphold the separation of church and state and all the Enlightenment values that Darrow was fighting for.

We should be respectful of other people’s practices of their philosophies and their creeds in their religions, and we should try to join everybody together in working to defend our constitutional democracy. A critical part of our constitutional democracy is the separation of church and state and no imposition of religion through the schools.

The Supreme Court’s ultimate decision in Engel vs. Vitale in 1962 was a great landmark precedent. Some of my colleagues today still walk around Congress saying this was the moral downfall of America, when the Supreme Court banned prayer in the public schools. But, as I like to say, the Supreme Court did not ban prayer in the public schools. As long as there are pop math quizzes, there will be prayer in the public schools.

All the Supreme Court found is that the government cannot impose religious prayer on anyone.

Thank you for this great award. Thank you for giving me a moment to share some of my thoughts with you. And please send me your thoughts and ideas as we move forward in trying to rescue American constitutional democracy today.