The vote in the Maine Senate on a bill to require all public school students to be vaccinated against a series of diseases may have revealed a hardening line between religious and non-religious Mainers.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 18-17 to restore to the bill a religious exemption to the requirement.  Four Democrats joined the 14 Republicans to reinstate the exemption.  The House of Representatives has already voted once to end the religious exemption.  Each chamber must vote on the bill at least once more.

The religious exemption won’t leave thousands upon thousands of Mainers unprotected.  Maine is the least “churched” state, meaning we have the lowest proportion of people who attend worship regularly.  So, a religious exemption doesn’t rope in many people.

Historically the unreligious have tolerated the religious, not taking issue with people’s deeply held beliefs.  This is the first time I have seen a state body come so close to overruling the tenets of a religion.  (Yes, Utah’s legislature repudiated polygamy to gain admittance to the Union, but that was in 1896, before my time and shortly before the Mormon church abandoned polygamy, which had kept Utah out of the union.)

The divide on vaccination and other religion-related issues often follows party lines, with Republicans wanting to let people follow the dictates of their religion and Democrats willing to use state authority to require or ban specified behaviors.

Democrats have also introduced a bill to ban “conversion therapy,” a scientifically dubious attempt to turn homosexual young people heterosexual.  The bill appears to be gaining support.  Yes, some people who had identified as homosexual have become heterosexual.  I know a woman who lived as a lesbian for a while, then said there was no way she was gay and resumed dating men.  But there is little evidence that conversion therapy works.  The question to me is whether churches should be free to use it.


The religious role in law has long been with us.  Some of the Ten Commandments, sacred to Jews and Christians alike, are written into secular law, most notably that you not commit murder and you not steal.  Depending on particulars, secular law also tells us not to give false evidence (lie) against our neighbor.  And in some ways, notably divorce, law tells us not to commit adultery.

More than a few arguments have revolved around whether our legal code came from our religious code or our religious code only reflects the larger moral code.  I can hear Cliff Clavin and Norm Peterson going around and around on it right now.

Within the church world, we have great divides, too.  Perhaps nothing so divides church from church as abortion.  Mainstream Protestants usually back the Roe vs. Wade decision by the Supreme Court and say the state has no business in our bedrooms. Catholics and other conservative Christians oppose Roe vs. Wade and say the state has no business allowing what they believe is murder. The rise of Trump gives the opponents hope that they can move the state back into the bedroom.

With Roe vs. Wade in force for 46 years, the focus of conservative churches has often shifted to homosexuality.  The most conservative get worked up at the very idea of same-sex marriage, also upheld by the Supreme Court.  Expand that into self-defining sexuality and the idea that sexual identity isn’t determined by birth as one gender or the other (binary) but is whatever you want it to be and you have a fertile field of discord to plow.

I have spoken with a man who wanted to pull his son from the Mount Blue schools because he believed the schools were “preaching homosexuality.”  I’m sure he isn’t alone in his belief, and certainly lots of Mount Blue residents have taken their kids out of the schools.  When I was last on the school board (a bit more than a decade ago), some 140 kids who lived in the district were schooled privately, at least some for religious reasons.

Much Christian history is written around controlling all sexual behavior, not just abortion.  Sexual behavior began changing in 1960 with the introduction of the birth-control pill.  Some religions adapted, and some still focus on sexual behavior, even telling their flocks to use no form of birth control other than abstinence (yeah, right).


One that bans artificial birth control is the Catholic church.  Most Catholics apparently agree with the Catholic theologian John Dominick Crossan, who told a Maine UCC (Congregational) conference that churches should shift focus from sexual behavior to violent behavior.  Polls show the same proportion of Catholics as non-Catholics practice birth control beyond abstinence, so the church’s birth-control dictum isn’t getting through.

I sometimes look at it as a divide between what I call “Old Testament Christians” and “New Testament Christians.”  That is, between those who see God as a stern judge not afraid to send bad behavers among us to burn in hell and those who see God as loving and merciful, showering us with grace when he sent Jesus to try to straighten us out.

Some Protestant churches welcome all regardless of sexual behavior.  Some, including the UCC, to which I belong, welcome female pastors and welcome gays and lesbians.  Others allow only men as pastors and some tell homosexuals they aren’t welcome.

This is a big circle.  Religions disagree among themselves as to how to behave and as to how to regulate behavior.  The Constitution and our history make it clear that they have absolute freedom to do so.  But many religions also try to influence legislation, and when they take their causes to the legislators, they risk the charge that they are trying to force their own morality on the rest of us.  Both those wanting more state adoption of religious goals and those opposing may be digging in.

Bob Neal calls himself a “New Testament Christian.”  Still, he believes the state needs to be extremely careful about stepping on the toes of those whose beliefs are more stringent.

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