A secularist agenda in Maryland for 2016

The back-and-forth contest between a Maryland legal and social landscape influenced by religion and one free of religious aspects gets renewed in the Assembly each session, with mostly limited bills submitted on both sides. Mathew Goldstein offers a look at the state of play this year.


/By Mathew Goldstein/ As the bills for the 2016 session are published, the ongoing conflict between secular (non-religious) versus non-secular (theistic or otherwise religious based) government in Maryland reveals itself.  Following is a summary of what we have to date.  For more information about these bills, including links for sending email to the committees, please go to http://secularmaryland.org/lobbying-actions.

 HB 16, which Matthew Snider previously criticized on Progressive Maryland’s BlogSpace, proposed allowing discrimination by places of public accommodation that are religiously affiliated non-profits providing goods or services to weddings.  There have always been religious institutions seeking to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws under the banner of free exercise, and some religious institutions endorse anti-LGBT sentiment, so this bill is no surprise.  This bill was promptly rejected by the House committee and withdrawn.

 HB 48 and 656 are government loans that fund membership organizations that discriminate against non-theists (deists, agnostics, atheists).  Atheists are not entitled to civic equality according to the recently deceased, and very Catholic, Justice Antonin Scalia.  Apparently, according to this "logic", when someone concludes there are no gods they also forfeit a claim to civic equality as implied somewhere in the original, unamended constitution in accordance with the Stare Decisis obligation to follow the prejudices prevalent in the 18th century because those prejudices define the founders original intent, except when those prejudices were anti-Catholic.  We oppose all loans to all theist only membership organizations.

 HB 52 requires that insurers provide coverage for in vitro fertilization procedures involving a surrogate mother when infertility prevents pregnancy.   When religious institutions tell people to lobby against a law because it is against divine will, we secularists tell lawmakers to disregard the complaints and instead favorably consider voting for the bill.  Infertile women of Maryland need this coverage; divine will is not a proper argument.

 HB 169, 203, 513, 514, 515 chip away at Maryland blue laws by allowing more Sunday hunting.  Death to the blue laws should be our state motto. [HB 513, 514 and 515 were withdrawn by sponsors Feb. 23 after unfavorable committee reports – ed.]

 HB 251 ensures privately schooled children can participate in public school programs.  Secularists, including anti-religion atheists like me, support this.   Public school facilities and programs should be made accessible to privately schooled children to the fullest extent that is practical.

 HB 404 gives the terminally ill an option to voluntarily hasten death with barbiturates.  Many religious institutions, citing the bible, Quran, Tanach, scriptures, etc., oppose this legislation.  They claim to know divine will and want our laws to abide by it.  Some religions each the opposite conclusion while also citing divine will.  Some religions take no position, or say there is no one consensus among their believers, or say the decision should be made by individuals.  Secularists (many of whom are theists) want the law to provide this option for those of us who may one day become terminally ill and want to hasten our deaths, provided there are procedural safeguards that protect the civil rights of patients and doctors.  HB 416 provides citizens with a booklet that explains legal end of life options.

 HB 568 is all too typical of freedom of conscience exemptions tailored to religious believers. It one-sidedly allows institutions to forbid, but not to mandate, end of life procedures.  Any such institutional level freedom of conscience necessarily overrides individual level freedom of conscience, which renders the concept dubious.  At the individual level a doctor has the option to either opt in or opt out.  At the institutional level the laws invariably provide an opt out without providing a corresponding opt in, thus betraying that these laws are about providing special privilege to religious dissenters from secular laws rather than institutional freedom of conscience.  Secularists want all laws to either pair institutional level opt outs with corresponding opt ins, or to drop the institutional level opt outs altogether.

 HB 603 restricts abortion based on speculative, unsubstantiated assertions about fetuses experiencing pain that most experts reject.

 HB 642 improves the wording of a law by replacing "church" with "house of worship".  Maryland laws still extraneously refer to "church", "gospel",  and "minister" instead of using more generic language.  It is long past time to eliminate this privileging of Christianity in legal language.

 HB 719 is a special sales tax exemption privilege narrowly targeted for two particular youth organizations among the many youth competing youth organizations, one of which, Boy Scouts of America, officially restricts membership to theists.  Isn't our motto in God we trust?  Doesn't the pledge of allegiance say under God?  Who do we arrogant atheists think we are, regular citizens entitled to the same legal privileges and immunities as everyone else?  As long as BSA policy is to deny non-theists membership we will oppose all government laws privileging their Scouting program over competing programs.

 The law that HB 719 amends, Article – Tax – General Section 11-204, exempts all 501(c)(3) organizations (including religious nonprofit organizations) from paying sales tax when holding an auction for fundraising.  Unfortunately, this same law also completely exempts "a bona fide church or religious organization" from all sales taxes without any restrictions.  This is unfair.  Religious organizations should be granted no tax exemptions above and beyond the tax exemptions given to the other 501(c)(3) organizations.  Note the inappropriate, and in this case redundant, use of sectarian language.

 HB 955 privileges student "non-sectarian" theistic prayer speech over all other speech at all school events, including mandatory in-school events that are otherwise not free speech contexts.  I do not know many non-theists who pray – who are they supposed to pray to? What is the definition of non-sectarian?  Is it non-sectarian if it covers 51% of the population?  67%?  Who decides what qualifies as non-sectarian?  If this is about protecting free speech or free exercise then why the non-sectarian restriction?  Is 20 seconds enough time for prayer?  Is 20 minutes too much?  The bill does not say.  Can atheists speak against theism during this exercise in "free speech"?  Someone needs to give this a little more thought.

 HB 994 and 995 permits more Sunday alcohol sales.  While local bills like these that chip away at the blue laws at the county and city level should be enacted, it would be better to strike down the state blue laws, thereby eliminating the need for local exemptions.

 HB 996 would replace the Monday after Easter Sunday as a mandated state wide school holiday with local decisions.  This is a better way for government institutions to manage the impact of religious holidays.   A school should close if, and only if, most  students or staff will be absent.  Ideally, a poll would be conducted to enable predicting non-attendance.  A reliance on pragmatic, evidence based decision making, as much as possible, is the way to go.  We will be waiting for another bill to similarly replace the state wide Easter Friday and Christmas holidays with as-needed local closures.

 HB 1028 asks voters to decide if alcohol will be sold on Sunday.  A majority vote is not an exercise of democracy when it is about deciding whether the laws should favor the citizens who follow a majority religion.  Do our law makers understand this?  Apparently sometimes not.  Business activity follows demand, citizens vote for, or against, Sunday commerce by buying, or not buying, on Sundays.

 HB 1081 is a government loan to a place of worship.  In Maryland we must trust our law makers to disregard sectarian differences.  Don't you trust them?  Will they also give government loans to Hindu temples, ethical culture meeting rooms, idol worshippers, etc.? If they don't then it must be because the loan applications were flawed or uncompetitive or some legitimate reason like that.  We secularists are not so naïve; we will oppose all loans to places of worship.

 HB 1310 revokes the licensing of Sunday alcohol sales.  Every now and then an  alcohol or hunting bill regresses.  We oppose such regressions.

 HB 1357 prohibits government funding of abortions or insurance that covers abortions.  Who backs this bill? Could it be people who claim to know the Truth and claim to speak for the divine will?  Secularists generally consider legal abortion to be a proper medical service.

 Most of the Senate bills are cross filed with House bills.  One that is not (yet) cross filed is SB 948 that requires schools receiving government funds to not discriminate.  If this bill passes will our governor sign it?  Maybe not.  Do what is right and pass this bill anyway this year and again in the future with a future governor if our current governor vetoes.

 HJ 7 calls for overturning Roe v. Wade on the grounds that science has concluded life begins at conception.  Did you also know that geometry proves that circles begin at their northernmost point?  If you want our laws to conflate theology with science then who are you going to call?  Hint: A nontheist is the wrong answer.

 To learn more about the latest skirmishes, or to participate, browse the lobbying action page of the Secular Coalition for Maryland at secularmaryland.org.  The  Secular Coalition for America advocates for nontheists and theists are welcome to participate.  We want government that expresses no opinion about monotheism, theism, or nontheism.  Secular government protects democratic equality before the law by recognizing all people as citizens instead of as monotheists versus polytheists or theists versus nontheists.