Third place: College essay contest — Belinda Becker-Jacob
Masquerading as morals, religion divides
FFRF awarded Belinda $2,500.
By Belinda Becker-Jacob
“Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. [The Texas Legislature] worked together on a bipartisan basis to pass a bill that I’m about to sign that ensures that the life of every unborn child who has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion.” These words were proudly spoken on May 19 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the signing ceremony for the Texas Heartbeat Act. He had just banned abortions past six weeks of gestation.
This major law robbing countless women of reproductive rights bears no scientific or medical basis; it is grounded merely in religious reasoning. Following the bill’s passage, religious groups such as the Texas Right to Life and the Human Coalition rejoiced, hailing the law as a restoration of lost morals and a terribly belated protection of human life. Over the years, countless such events and legal actions have demonstrated the divisive nature of religion in the public sphere — and the power of secular institutions to strengthen the ties between those of different backgrounds.
As a liberal, pro-choice female, I find the heartbeat law heinous, its restrictions preposterous and unjust. But most disturbing is the justification — or lack thereof — behind it. The primary proponents of the bill are religious anti-choice individuals such as Abbott and organizations who claim their views are simply the “word of God” or cite biblical verses. For ethical reasons, no atheist groups have publicly supported it. Although I was raised as a humanist with a strong belief in the separation of church and state, realizing the risk of religion hindering reproductive rights has reinforced to me the need for a secular government. Appalled by recent events, my rejection of religion has only deepened.
Unfortunately, the Texas Heartbeat Act has not been the only legal action in which religion has prevailed. Religious institutions have won numerous recent Supreme Court cases, including some limiting reproductive rights.
The 2014 case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores established that for-profit religious institutions are exempt from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requirement that employers provide FDA-approved contraceptive methods. This set a precedent for Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and John Home v. Pennsylvania (2020) in which the SCOTUS majority upheld that the federal government “had the authority to provide exemptions from the [ACA] regulatory contraceptive requirements for employers with religious and conscientious objections” (Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania, 2020).
Both cases were rightfully controversial, drawing supporters and their adversaries to Washington. This conflict has incited violence, including menacing protests outside abortion clinics and the murder of prominent abortion physician George Tiller by anti-choice activists.
Secularism, however, has served as a unifying force in the sea of hatred and division. In 1962, the New York State Board of Regents authorized a voluntary “nondenominational” prayer recitation every morning at elementary schools. Although the school board argued the prayer did not establish an official religion and thus did not violate the Establishment Clause, seven justices referenced the vastly important separation of church and state, ultimately ruling that the practice was unconstitutional and must be ceased. This landmark decision of Engel v. Vitale ensured public educational institutions remain nondenominational, creating a more inclusive environment for students of various backgrounds and undoubtedly impacting my own schooling experience positively.
The right of freedom from religion is vital and often ignored. My humanist, liberal upbringing taught me that religion is not equivalent to morality or fairness, and recent events have demonstrated the truth of these ideas, furthering my belief in them. But equally importance to an ethical society is the law. The sheer danger religion poses to the legal rights of millions has led me to advocate for the separation of church and state, which protects and unites us all.
Belinda, 19, is from New York City, and attends the University of Denver, where she is a member of the Delta Alpha Pi Honor society. She writes that “in addition to being passionate about the separation of church and state issues, I am committed to disability rights and supporting the needs of the neurodiverse population, serving as the student representative of DU’s Neurodiversity Resources Group.” She hopes to use her political science degree to work in advocacy or a similar field and change people’s perceptions of those who are labeled “different.”