03/27/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Holy Week and Holy Terror in the Halls of Justice

It is Holy Week in the halls of justice as our justices in the Supreme Court consider the fate of Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). How fitting. They are hearing the arguments in the very week that Christians acknowledge the holy terror permitted by Pontius Pilate as he heard the arguments against Jesus Christ. Pontius found no fault in Jesus but gave him over to a murderous crowd anyway. He washed his hands of him.

We can only hope that our justices will not wash their hands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. I pray that they will have more courage and discernment than Pontius.

I want our justices to respectfully listen to the people who believe that LGBT people should be treated as second-class citizens or worse. And I want them to listen to the rest of us -- more than half of all Americans.

I want them to read and consider the law deeply.

And I want them to soundly, and without any hesitation, reject the arguments of those same rabble rousers who would diminish our democracy with their lack of respect for same-sex couples and parents.

There is no doubt that the preponderance of radical-right opinions resounds in those halls and deliberating hearts, but I pray that this opinion will not prevail and that our court will give it no standing.

I believe that our justices will rule wisely, setting aside the manipulation of our society and government by those who would deconstruct our Constitution.

Even if they agree with the religious zealots, I believe that they know the law and the precedents well enough to resist their internalized homophobia and the religious bigotry it creates.

I love President James Madison's assessment of the convergence of religious zealots. In a 1774 letter to William Bradford, the future president wrote, "Union of religious sentiments begets a surprising confidence and ecclesiastical establishments tend to grate ignorance and corruption all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects."

If Madison were with us today, I have no doubt that he would rail against the characterization of our Constitution by some of our leaders who think that it serves only their causes and their kind, and the "mischievous projects" of the network of conservative Christians led by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). They are fighting pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ legislation by claiming that such policies infringe on their own religious freedom, and they are gaining momentum in the public square.

Madison would have reminded this well-heeled and powerful conservative caucus of the limits of their liberty outlined in the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

I am proud that our sitting president, Barack Obama, has taken the time to read the First Amendment and the Federalist Papers and the many documents related to the formation of our Constitution and the interpretations of it that evolved. I am proud that he has taken a stand on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and sent a clear message to the Supreme Court that DOMA is unconstitutional. DOMA is a yoke that constrains democracy and hurts the souls of those it intended to protect as well as those of all the people it damages. It simply must go.

I believe that our president understands that, regardless of personal or religious views, his obligation is to the people of the United States and the Constitution. With the steady encroachment of religious and social conservatives into Congress and the courts, he has his work cut out for him.

We need to help him by reading and thinking and communicating with our friends, neighbors and elected and appointed officials about our democratic values. We need to insist that the Supreme Court uphold the Constitution and our Bill of Rights.

Why must we speak out now?

On March 18 Political Research Associates (PRA) released a new report entitled "Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights." It states, "Religious conservatives have succeeded in reframing the debate, inverting the victim-oppressor dynamic, and broadening support for their agenda." In a summary of the report, PRA explains:

Such arguments for "religious liberty" are calculated to subvert the traditional progressive framing of freedom versus discrimination, effectively accusing women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals of infringing on the right of conservative Christians to discriminate against them.

It's not new news, just sad news.

In another summary, PRA writes:

Religious liberty arguments have long been used to defend discrimination. As late as the 1970s and 1980s, they were used to defend racial segregation. Today, the same arguments are being used against women and LGBTQ individuals. ... The religious liberty campaign consistently distorts the facts. Conservative Christians appeal to the public by confusing them with knowingly false statements like "Ministers would be forced to marry gay couples if a state legalized gay marriage."

So, just to set the record straight, I am a minister, and I cannot be compelled to marry anyone. So when you see statements like this by conservative evangelical organizations, including Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom, just say no.

Contrary to what religious-liberty zealots tell us, we can see what was intended for us even in an obscure treaty that was developed in 1796 between the United States and Tripoli. In Article 11 of that treaty, we find that our founding fathers said that the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.

And to more deeply understand the intent of Madison and his colleagues, we can review
Madison's "Detached Memoranda," which concern the issue of religious liberty. This material is particularly important in that it gives Madison's views of a number of events that are sometimes disputed by accomodationists (e.g., congressional chaplains, days of prayer, etc.). Let's look at an 1832 letter to Rev. Jasper Adams to see what Madison said about the separation of church and state:

I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions & doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded [against] by an entire abstinance of the [government] from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, & protecting each sect [against] trespasses on its legal rights by others.

And what did he say about the First Amendment? According to 1789 congressional records:

Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience. ... He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.

And, finally, in an 1821 letter to F. L. Schaeffer, he said this against establishment of religion:

The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.

And in an 1822 letter to Edward Livingston, he wrote:

[T]here remains ... a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. And in a Govt. of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject.

While conservative Christians and their conduits like the National Religious Broadcaster-affiliated radio stations are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture in all its aspects -- the public square, schools, the church and commerce.

This is what our founding fathers feared and the "mischievous projects" that are born out of incestuous interdependence of government and religion. These projects are what we must confront and, as needed, defend against in order to continue to evolve as a democracy and benefit from the diversity of beliefs that has always been part of the United States of America.

Two of my colleagues, Rev. Harry Knox of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Imam Daayiee of Muslims for Progressive Values, and I will give the benediction at the rally on the Supreme Court steps today. The blessing was beautifully written by Rev. Rebecca Voelkel at the Institute for Welcoming Resources and Faith Work. The last line says everything I want to say to our justices:

"(We pray) that one day, our actions (and yours) and our witness (and yours) will be known amongst those who helped change the face of our country -- by the sheer power of love."