This month, one of the primal conflicts in American politics surfaced in Rhode Island. Antiabortion legislators passed a bill allowing drivers to purchase specialty “Choose Life” license plates. Half of the $40 surcharge for the plate would go to the state and the other half to CareNet Rhode Island, which describes itself as “a faith-based nonprofit organization that exists to serve women and men facing unplanned pregnancies.”
But on July 16, Governor Lincoln Chafee vetoed the legislation, citing “strong walls of separation” between church and state. These plates don’t represent a major breach of those walls — “Choose Life” plates are available all over the country, including in Massachusetts and Connecticut, which don’t appear to be bastions of theocracy. But it is fitting that in Rhode Island, the barrier is higher.
The Ocean State has long served as America’s conscience with respect to church-state separation, even before the birth of the republic. Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, wrote “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience’’ in 1644 as an argument for tolerance and religious freedom, and he put his ideas into practice. The Touro Synagogue in Newport, the oldest standing synagogue in the United States, famously received a letter from George Washington celebrating each “in safety under his own vine and fig tree.”
Williams, who was a devout Christian, wrote during a time when religiously motivated warfare racked his native England. He sought to avoid these conflicts by placing government in a civic sphere entirely distinct from theological concerns and justifications. His writings influenced John Locke, one of the titanic theorists of modern governance, who was similarly concerned with creating a state in which England’s religious wars would never be repeated. Locke, too, was an ardent believer, but he accepted that human beings — including those in government — could never judge the truth of religious propositions and so must concentrate on worldly interests, leaving salvation to individuals and their spiritual leaders.
The separation between church and state that Williams and Locke argued for and that Washington lauded may not seem all that relevant to the license plate legislation. After all, no one is forced to buy the plate, and “choose life” is not necessarily a religious message. Everyone can still have his own fig tree.
The difficulty, and the reason that Chafee’s veto was the right decision, is that states need good reasons to act, and there is no good reason for the state to facilitate a religious institution’s distinctive message, especially one delivered as covertly as CareNet Rhode Island’s. The organization’s faith affiliation is buried deep in its literature and even there vaguely alluded to. Otherwise it takes pains to distance itself from its religious commitments. It suggests that its aim is simply to help women and men make the right decision about pregnancy. In its marketing, it uses subtle innuendo to imply that abortion damages the mental health of mothers and fathers and the first step any expecting mother should take is to receive an ultrasound. From a health standpoint, this makes little sense, but pushing ultrasounds in early stages of pregnancy is a good way to bait women into the offices of technicians who then pressure them into carrying potentially unwanted pregnancies to term.
The most basic purpose of the secular state is to provide an open field for people of varying opinions to reason together toward rules that enable everyone to believe what they wish and exercise those beliefs in a way that does not infringe on one another. When religious — or nonreligious — organizations use underhanded methods in order to promote their preferences, they are polluting the open civic sphere in which information is a key source of sound decision-making.
It is a pity that CareNet Rhode Island is not more forthcoming about its intent and inspiration. The promise of the secular state — which is not, as some misunderstand, atheistic, but rather noncommittal — lies in its unique capacity to craft public policy that enables women to take advantage of CareNet or of legal abortion services, according to their own scruples. This promise is undermined by institutions that feint and bluff their way toward their goals.
Access to medical care is something that Rhode Island can justifiably advance. But ensuring access to a religious message, which CareNet Rhode Island surreptitiously provides, is not a defensible state interest. Chafee appears to understand this. His veto helps to preserve Rhode Island’s age-old posture of noncommitment.
Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review. Follow him on Twitter @simonwaxman.