People of faith must look to Senator Sweeney for protection
Last week, the New Jersey Senate Commerce Committee held a public hearing on Bill S1398. This bill forces insurance companies to pay for fertility procedures for lesbian couples planning to bear children and increases the cost of health insurance for everyone to pay for it. Remember always that EVERY mandate, be it ever so noble, increases the costs to those who can only marginally afford the insurance premiums they are already paying.
After taking testimony from those in support of the bill, fairness and basic democratic standards demanded that testimony be allowed from those who opposed the bill. You would think that people who run under the banner of the "Democrat" Party would behave democratically. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
John Tomicki with the League of American Families, and Reverend Brad Winship with Evangelical Civic Outreach asked to testify in opposition. The session ended with the committee reluctantly hearing Mr. Tomicki's explanation of the unintended consequences of the legislation. When Reverend Winship was fewer than three sentences into his introduction, the Chairwoman, Senator Nia Gill silenced the pastor, saying, “We are not here to have a religious ––––– [pause], because there is a separation between church and state.”
Wow! Did the Senator miss the entire civil rights movement? Has she forgotten that the civil rights movement in this country -- like the emancipation of women and the abolition of slavery before it -- were moral imperatives, informed by conscience and led by religious folk.
Reverend Winship had opened with a quotation from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.: “The church is to be the conscience of the state.” Senator Ray Lesniak, responded saying, “The church is not my conscience in terms of a senator, and I don’t think it should be the conscience of any of us. We have a separation of Church and State in this country, and it should not be our conscience.”
Senator Gill agreed, “Because there is a separation between church and state. And I am here to make sure we have that State discussion, and your religious discussion you can have with the individual members, if you think it is necessary to inform their opinion.”
Senators, have you forgotten that Rev. King appealed to America's better nature through religion?
Does Senator Lesniak forget when he brought religious leaders into the State House to participate in the debate to abolish the death penalty? Did he just use them as a convenient window dressing?
Senator Gerald Cardinale spoke up in defense of Reverend Winship by informing the committee, “It is clear in our society that there are many centers of influence. Because someone’s beliefs derive from a religious background does not make them any less valid concepts as to the individual who is testifying than if they came from a legal background, or from a constitutional background, or from some other background… – The First Amendment should give him a right to speak however he has derived the thoughts he wants to express. Were he from the Communist Party, I believe he would still have a right to speak with respect to the beliefs he derives as a Communist.”
But Senators Lesniak and Gill would not be moved. They are attorneys, and they argue that civil law alone determines what is moral and that individual conscience and how it is derived must be suppressed or at least denied a voice. Their argument is not unlike those expressed by other attorneys back in 1933 when the Enabling Laws were being debated in the Reichstag.
We all remember the legal cynicism expressed by Senator Lesniak when he claimed -- so long as there was no law that expressly forbade it -- pay to play was quite fine and he would do it. But that is like saying it is OK for the Senator to sleep with his best friend's 18-year-old kid, just because no law says he can't. Just because something is legal, that doesn't make it ethical.
And isn't it this absence of ethics that has corrupted our political system? Those legions of lawyers endlessly searching for a legal loophole that will allow people to do bad things under cover of law.
Slavery was once THE LAW in America. If a clergyman like Brad Winship would have addressed the honorables in the 1850's on the subject, he might have been similarly barred from testifying and been told by an "honorable" member: "The church is not my conscience in terms of a senator, and I don’t think it should be the conscience of any of us. We have a separation of Church and State in this country, and it should not be our conscience."
Slavery was not undone by THE LAW in America. In fact, it was coddled by THE LAW and upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Slavery was defeated by an uprising of conscience led by people of faith and informed by Judeo-Christian values. Religion defeated slavery.
It is monstrous for Senators Lesniak and Gill to argue that religious values have no place in democracy, and that the wording of our First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” must be interpreted to mean that the state is prohibited from hearing any testimony that involves a morality that is higher than civil law. This is the atheistic interpretation of the Constitution warned about by liberals of faith, including Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges, the author of "America's New Fundamentalists: When Atheism Becomes Religion."
After being denied the opportunity to freely express his views to those in power, Pastor Winship explained: “I did not expect to be shut down in my introduction – even before explaining why evangelical pastors are opposed to the bill. Every time I tried to speak, I was interrupted by the assumption that I was not, and would not, be addressing the bill. It was apparent that Chairwoman did not want discussed any ethical opposition to the bill."
He continued, “I had to stop speaking because I realized that whatever I said was a catch-22 situation. If I answered her charge that I was not dealing with the bill, I was not dealing with the bill; if I went on to speak about the misplaced ethical foundation of the bill and the damage it would bring, I was not dealing with the bill. To remain silent was personally irksome. However, in this situation, I felt the best approach was to keep quiet and let the chairwoman expose her intolerance.”
It is worth noting that both Senators Gill and Lesniak were very close to a fellow attorney/politician whose opinions they were happy to hear on issues that came before the Legislature. The man in question was a pedophile. Later, he was convicted of a sex crime, though not disbarred. In the future, we hope that Senate President Steve Sweeney will ensure that Senators Lesniak and Gill extend the same courtesy to average citizens who come before them.