Where’s the divide between church and state?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
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The First Amendment is quite clear that our government cannot establish an official religion, and nor can it do anything that prevents people from exercising their own religious beliefs as they see fit.
But you won’t find the expression “separation of church and state” anywhere in that hallowed document. It comes from the pen of Thomas Jefferson. He used the expression when writing to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association in 1802. He wrote that the First Amendment had built “a wall of separation between church and State.”
Jefferson’s statement has been cited since, as if it were a ratified part of the U.S. Constitution. But it’s not.
Jefferson wasn’t the first person, of course, to suggest a divide between what should come under government control and what should remain a matter of personal, religious faith and discretion.
It’s not Sunday, but you may open your King James version of the Bible to Mark 12:17 – “And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marveled at him.” Jesus was referring specifically to taxes, which needed to be paid with coins, which had Caesar’s image on them. Beyond that he didn’t leave many clues where the divide lies between what obligations his followers owe to society and its government and what to their maker.
And nor did Jefferson give a precise location for his “wall of separation.”
The practice of separating church from state in this country has done maybe a better job of dividing Americans than it has keeping church out of the state and state out of the church.
The past couple of weeks provide a wonderful example.
When it appeared that enterprises owned and operated by the Catholic Church (and all other employers) would be forced to provide birth control and other reproductive services through their insurance programs the hue and cry was raised that the Obama Administration was treading upon the First Amendment’s protection of religion. The Catholic Church, as well other institutions, opposes any artificial form of birth control or abortion as part of its doctrine.
The White House waffling began with hints that exemptions could be found.
Then the women’s rights advocates added their cries to the political cacophony: “It’s not a First Amendment issue; it’s a women’s rights issue.”
Well, why shouldn’t a woman working for a religious institution have the same rights and privileges as a woman working for a secular institution? Doesn’t that sound perfectly fair? The only obstacle to equal treatment for the two hypothetical female workers is that rift we’ve established between church and state.
There’s more questions than answers at this point.
It’s clear the First Amendment bans government interference with the actual practice of religion. It would be lunacy to force a church to provide condoms, day-after-pills or Planned Parenthood vouchers or the like to the people who are responsible for providing the church’s teaching against such practices. Nor does it seem reasonable that any employee involved in the day-to-day operation of the church or its religious outreach should be subject to all the same rules as in the sectarian workplace. Those people are part of the core values of the church: the guardians of its tenets.
Equal hiring rules aside, society would never force a Protestant church to hire an atheist to deliver the weekly sermon. That’s all church turf and should remain that way.
But what happens when a church expands its endeavors beyond salvation?
If a religious group establishes a hospital as part of its spiritual outreach, providing medical services to the poor and needy for free or at low cost, it’s arguable that the facility should be treated exactly as a house of worship is treated: it’s no less a part of the religious activities of the church than the sanctuary.
If a religious group establishes a college or university to teach its doctrine and to ordain its ministers, or even provide ethical training and professional skills to people who cannot afford a public or private education elsewhere, that also sounds like a religious function and should be treated accordingly.
But what happens when the hospital or university is competing against other private or public facilities?
If the facility is identical to other hospitals or other schools in all aspects except for church ownership, should it still be treated as religion or just another business? Should it be forced to follow the identical rules other businesses must follow and compete fairly?
And if a church-owned university or hospital takes taxpayer dollars, hasn’t it already crossed that divide between church and state? One of the core principals of our system of government is that we all are treated the same before the law.
Churches get a lot of breaks from the tax code and other government regulations without complaint. By accepting those special privileges they’ve invited Caesar into their flock.
Of course, they could turn the other cheek, provide the added, abhorrent insurance coverage with longsuffering and counsel their female workers to avoid the need to use it, while forgiving those who don’t. Seems like that may be a proper way to render appropriately.