An Albuquerque pastor said during a July 10 sermon that he’d spoken to Mark Ronchetti, the Republican candidate for governor, for “hours,” and that Ronchetti said that, if elected, he would abolish abortion in New Mexico. Publicly Ronchetti has stated that he would seek to end the practice of late-term and partial-birth abortions.
Steve Smothermon, senior pastor of Legacy Church, told those seated in the pews and watching online that Ronchetti said his public stance on abortion is a ploy to get elected, and that his ultimate goal would be to end all abortion in New Mexico.
“He said, ‘But I can’t just go in and do it all 100% because we won’t ever get elected.’ He said, ‘I just want to start,’ but his goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico,” Smothermon said. “And you say, ‘How do I know that?’ Because I talked to him for hours.”
Ronchetti’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Smothermon also seemed to encourage churchgoers to vote for Ronchetti over incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, though he did not name her and instead resorted to vilifying the governor with an epithet.
“We have two choices in New Mexico,” Smothermon said. “We have the Wicked Witch of the North, or you have Mark Ronchetti.”
Video of the sermon has been widely shared on social media with many people calling the alleged conversation between Ronchetti and Smothermon a violation of the separation of church and state.
The concept of separating religious views from politics became a renewed talking point in the wake of the late-June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strip away women’s constitutional protections for abortion by reversing the landmark court ruling Roe v. Wade.
On the heels of the Roe decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Kennedy v. Bremerton, issuing a 6-3 majority opinion that a former Washington State public high school football coach had the right to pray with his team on the field.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The phrase is widely interpreted to mean the separation of church and state — although the exact phrase is not used.
Rachel Laser, the CEO of the nonprofit Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said that separation of church and state is “baked into” the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment has two clauses on religion that work together to protect everybody’s religious freedom,” she said. “It’s what guarantees religious freedom for all of us, instead of just for some of us.”
Sarah Dreier, an assistant professor with the University of New Mexico’s political science department, said the wording in the Constitution allows for lots of interaction between politicians and religious leaders, far more than many other countries.
“Separation of church and state is not a one-size-fits-all concept,” she said. “And for countries that have some kind of secularism codified in their constitution, they implement it slightly differently, too.”
Dreier coauthored a publication that noted seven U.S. States — Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — have constitutional provisions that prohibit anyone from holding state office if they deny the existence of a god.
These provisions exist despite Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution that directs “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Dreier’s research also found that Pennsylvania stipulates that religious identity or belief system cannot disqualify someone from holding office; however, Pennsylvania’s provision does not extend to atheists.
Dreier also noted that while a majority of Americans identify as Christian, and while that’s also true of members of Congress, there are several non-religious people who’ve held office.
A December 2021 poll from the Pew Research Center found that about three-in-ten American adults — 29% — described themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. Meanwhile, a separate poll from Pew found that only one member of the current Congress identified as “unaffiliated,” one stated they were “other,” and 18 selected “don’t know/refused.”
Nearly nine-in-ten members of Congress — 88% — identified as Christian.
“I think it’s unfortunate that people holding religious views are dramatically over represented in Congress,” Dreier said. “From the standpoint of democratic integrity, I do find it concerning that atheist and agnostic people are underrepresented and elected to office.”
It’s a sentiment that Laser with Americans United agrees with. She also worries that too many elected officials overlook atheists and agnostics not only while campaigning, but especially while governing.
“We’re a country of all religions, and none,” she said. “It’s important that our politicians understand that and it’s crucial that they represent all of us and not just some of us. And when they’re not, they’re reinforcing status quo power structures that hurt those of us who are marginalized, and that’s antithetical to our Constitution’s promise of freedom and equality for all.”