Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Not so Separate Church and State—Should Christian Organizations Get Breaks from the Government?

The New York Times this week has run a series of interesting articles by Diana B. Hendriques about the ever decreasing size of the wall between church and state in a variety of matters. This particular blog will try to digest the evidence she presents. Here first are links to several of the articles

Take first the issue of Christian Day Care Schools. In many state they do not have to be run to the same standards nor have the same inspections as state run Day Care centers. For example a state run center in Alabama must: 1) have regular training for its staff; 2) submit to regular on-site inspections; 3) have a lock and key for the medicine cabinet; 4) have two sinks only one of which can be for food preparation; 4) have a license; 5) comply with the civil rights laws in regard to hiring; 6) file a report with the IRS of donations and grants to the center. None of these restrictions apply to the Church of God Day Care Center in Auburn Alabama or for that matter other such Christian Day Care Centers. One of the things that came as a surprise to me in reading the articles is that while some such exemptions are of long standing, many of these sorts of exemptions have been created in the last fifteen years. In fact, there has been a growing trend of such exemptions in the last decade or two--- more than 200 laws have been created since 1989 of this sort in a wide variety of states. One professor from Emory has bemoaned the changes in the laws and says that separation of church and state is no longer the law of our land—instead we have what he calls ‘religious affirmation action programs’. And what is especially telling is that it is low church Protestants who formerly screamed loudest about separation of church and state who are now taking full advantage of such new laws, while still preaching that the government is a menace to and is endangering the separation of church and state rules. What’s up with that?
The timing of these new breaks in the law is especially propitious since the church is going more and more into non-traditional styles of ‘ministry’--- ranging from ice cream parlors to beauty salons to athletic facilities to funeral homes to day care centers to bookstores! Churches get property tax breaks, and lee way in using their land to a degree that other organizations can only envy. Here’s one telling sentence from the first of these articles which appeared in Sunday’s paper--- “In recent years, a church-run fitness center with a tanning bed and video arcade in Minnesota, a biblical theme park in Florida, a ministry’s 1,800-acre training retreat and conference center in Michigan, religious broadcasters’ transmission towers in Washington State, and housing for teachers at church-run schools in Alaska have all been granted tax breaks by local officials — or, when they balked, by the courts or state legislators.” Of course all these facilities have city water, city trash service, city fire and police protection and so on—they just don’t have to pay the taxes which pay for them.
In some cases, it is right to ask are all of these exemptions given to activities that are 1) not for profit; 2) could be called charitable activities that benefit the whole community and the like? It is easier to answer this question when it comes to soup kitchens open to all, drug rehab centers open to all, clothing and shelter services open to all. For example, my church runs a ‘Room at the Inn’ service for the homeless several nights a month. These sorts of services do indeed benefit the whole community and are a public service. But some of these perks seem to go well beyond the intent of First Amendment which of course says that Congress shall make no law in regard to the free establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In what way is freedom of religion at issue in the establishment of a Christian beauty parlor? Inquiring minds want to know. When you discover tax exempt Christian old folk’s homes that are raking in huge sums of money, do not take the poor or indigent, and bleed dry every last resource of various old people, you have to say--- THIS IS NOT A CHARITABLE ORGANIZATION.
And then there is the issue not just of tax and land use breaks, but the actual garnering of federal grants. You will be interested to know that this growing trend began with Bill Clinton in 1996. There are now federal grants and contracts that churches can regularly apply for. Just another example of everyone’s tax dollars at work. Is it really true, by and large that radical courts have been gutting our religious freedoms, or would it be fairer to say that the courts have not done this, indeed quite the opposite in the last fifteen years, but it has become more particular about the public display of religious things on public property? It seems to me that the latter is nearer the actual truth.
Lets consider another aspect of the separation issue—employees of religious institutions. Many of them have few if any legal rights when it comes to their employment. They can be dismissed without due process or proper cause. Take for instance the story of Mary Rosati. She was a novice in training in an order of nuns in Toledo. One day she went to the doctor with her Mother Superior and discovered she had breast cancer and that it was serious. The Mother Superior then announced” We will have to let her go. I don’t think we can take care of her.” (not a religious ground for dismissal. Indeed one might say that dismissal for that reason goes against the religious teaching of Jesus). Some months later Ms. Rosati was told that she was being let go because the Mother Superior and her council had concluded she was not called to be a part of the order (a religious opinion). Mary Rosati lost her health insurance in them midst of battling cancer, and still has none. Now if it had been a secular employer, Mary Rosati could have taken the matter to court and won on the basis of the American with Disabilities Act. But when Ms. Rosati went to court, the case was dismissed as an ‘ecclesiastical’ matter which was beyond the court’s jurisdiction and indeed outside the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bottom line—here we have a Christian organization trying to selfishly protect itself, at the expense of one of its own noviates. In short, the law, or lack of a law, allows Christians to behave badly towards their employees. And there are many similar tales I could tell. Take the case of Lynette Petruska, who was a chaplain at Gannon University, a Catholic school in Erie Pa. In fact she was its first female chaplain. During her brief three year tenure in this job, she apparently did her work too well. She refused to co-operate in the cover up the sexual misconduct of a senior official at the school, she refused to support the slackening of restrictions in regard to on campus rules about sexual harassment, and she was demoted and then in essence force out. Here was a woman who went through 16 years of Catholic education, was very supportive of her institution she was serving at, thought that Christian ethics should especially apply there, and probably lost her job for it. Two years have come and gone, and no court so far will touch the case because of ‘separation of church and state’, even though Rev. Gannon says that her superior acknowledged he was demoting her because she was a woman. Or I could tell you the story of the 73 year old United Methodist minister who was forced to retire from his church in Stony Brook even though he wanted to keep serving as did his church, but he bumped into the mandatory retirement rule of our denomination. He has sued, to no avail thus far. Does age discrimination have a place in the Christian workplace?
Perhaps we don’t want the state to police the church for us, but in that case, should we not be policing ourselves? Should we not set up some sort of ecclesiastical court system for all genuine Christian denominations that such people could appeal to? Couldn’t we have an accountability system for Christian colleges and institutions? Something with some clout like the Evangelical Financial Accountability organization?
But there are other issues as well. In June of this year, Governor Jeb Bush signed a piece of legislation into law which exempted “the Holy Land Experience” from paying $300,000 a year in back taxes for the last five years. Seems this ‘Christian business’ has been raking in the dough. Now I have been to this Christian theme park. It’s o.k., but it has its hokey dimensions, and it certainly isn’t a charity. It’s a for profit organization that benefits from land use laws, property laws, and tax exemption as if it were a church. Only its not—it’s a business, a theme park, only a few miles from Disneyworld and other theme parks. It cost $35 for adults and $23 fir children to get in. Charity is not the word that comes to mind. Nor is it providing any public service of a social nature at least (it is providing some dubious Biblical interpretation). I don’t have a problem with them being a business—but shouldn’t they be paying for city water, lights, streets, fire and police services, like any other business? Inquiring minds want to know.
If we look at the issue of laws invoking or ruling on the separation of church and state issue two things seem clear. They were far stricter in the mid 70s than they are today, Secondly, we cannot claim that this change is due solely to the growing political influence of the Republican religious right. In fact it has come about because Christians who are both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the Senate, and the White House have been in favor of doing more that weakens the separation of church and state provisions. Now none of this crosses the line such that we could claim that the government is establishing or prohibition a particular religion. After all, Moslems, Jews, Hindus and others are also benefiting from these laws. But as it stands the government, both federal, state, and local is now in effect fighting secularism on its own by passing such laws. Which brings me to a point and some final questions. I haven’t even touched the fact that clergy can opt out of Social Security and get housing allowance breaks with the IRS. There is incredible scope to the amount of privileges granted in the name of religion by various levels of our government.

QUESTION ONE--- IS IT TRUE OR FALSE THAT OUR GOVERNMENT IS ANTI-CHRISTIAN? I don’t really see how we can claim it is true in any global or comprehensive sense if one looks at the trail of legislation.

QUESTION TWO—DO WE CARE IF THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE HAS BEEN ERODED IN SOME RESPECTS, AND STRENGTHEN BY EXEMPTIONS IN OTHERS? It certainly seems that even many traditional Christian separatists care less and less about this.

QUESTION THREE—DO WE WANT THE GOVERNMENT HELPING US THRIVE IN BUSINESS, AND EXTEND THE SOCIAL GOSPEL IN VARIOUS WAYS? I don’t particularly see the latter as at all a bad thing, since it has some wide public benefit and does not amount to the establishment of religion in the doctrinal sense. As for the former, I have some questions.

QUESTION FOUR--- IF ALL THIS IS TRUE, IS THE CLAIM OF INCREASING LIBERALISM AND SECULARISM IN OUR CULTURE SIMPLY FALSE? Yes I think this is largely true on the latter issue (secularism). We are a profoundly religious people, its just not as much Christian religion as it used to be. As for the former question, I think the answer is yes and no depending on the issue. If you look at the way the nation votes as a barometer, the answer is that since 2000 signs point definitely towards no.


Rainsborough said...

When it comes to extending the "social gospel," perhaps legislation could be drafted that would give a tax break to programs of social improvement without regard to their religious or denominational (or non-religious, non-denominational) cast. In other words, in a way that would not give religion as such a tax break.

The Times reports seem to suggest that in the United States, religious organizations are government financed (by grants and tax breaks) to the tune of tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars. And hundreds or thousands of laws and regulations don't apply to religious organizations. It's enough to make one wonder whether the Establishment Clause means anything. But economic opportunities in this sector seem to abound.

In 1995, it should be recalled, the Republicans took control of Congress.

Wes said...

"Perhaps we don’t want the state to police the church for us, but in that case, should we not be policing ourselves? Should we not set up some sort of ecclesiastical court system for all genuine Christian denominations that such people could appeal to?"

Dr. Witherington, you make many valid points in your post. And it's shameful that noviates, pastors, and others have virtually no protection. But does your statment quoted above smack of Sharia law?

David Johnson said...

It also smacks of 1 Corinthians 6, Wes. "Is there no one among you who can decide disputes for you?"

It's a biblical idea, but I'm guessing that there are a lot of genuine Christian denominations that would not submit to it. I'm guessing most denominational bodies would be largely unwilling to surrender such powers to a "supreme ecclesiastical court"--maybe that's just my heritage coming through though.

Bill Barnwell said...

Ben, do you feel like the tax breaks are really worth the government strings in general? The examples you raise also remind me of certain "ministers" who seek licensing or ordination mainly so that they can get tax breaks. Also churches getting tax exempt status are put on a tether by the government and face restricted speech. I personally do not care at all for churches who treat their services like political rallies, but I still feel they should be able to say what they want without fear of retribution. Also, sometimes I do feel that there are even appropriate times to speak out politically or even against particular candidates. But as things stand, churches can not, legally at least.

As a pastor, I sure do enjoy some of the tax breaks I recieve. But I often think it would be better for pastors to bite the bullet and pay their fair share of taxes (perhaps churches could help offset some of that increased cost on pastors?) and for churches to release themselves from the strings of the government. It might be painful at first, but the Church might ultimately find it liberating and it would probably go a way to erasing charges that churches and ministers are getting off the hook too easy. Pastors and churches would also be able to speak more freely.

This seems radical, but do you think it might ultimately be more beneficial or harmful than the status quo, and would it ultimately be good for the Church or would it be harmful? I also like the idea of handling things through internal structures of arbitration rather than through civil government if that ever could be possible, but it's probably as likely as churches revolting against tax exempt status.

Ben Witherington said...

Well let me share another way of looking at this. First of all, of course the church will never get its act together and submit to a religious form of judicial process over all. But in fact most denominations do have a judicial council, including mine, and I am thankful for it. When a pastor refused to do a same sex marriage ceremony and his liberal bishop put him on leave, the judicial council reinstated him and all is well. Part of the problem for some low church Protestant groups of course is that they failed to get the memo that the polity that the NT talks anything about is not democratic nor does it start from the bottom up such that the disciples control the leaders. This is simply not what happened when Jesus picked the Twelve or the church in Acts replaced Judas, or Paul had Timothy and Titus appoint elders and so on. Whether we like it or not, there was a hierarchy of leadership of some sort in the early church, and here is my point--- LOCAL CHURCHES WERE ACCOUNTABLE TO LEADERS NOT JUST WITHIN BUT ALSO OUTSIDE THEIR OWN LOCAL CHURCH. Even if one argues that we have no more apostles in the church, there were still prophetic figures like John of Patmos to whom a whole series of churches were accountable. And this trend continued in the second century with Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome and so on. In other words, the kingdom has never been a democracy, and the word 'church' refers to a transnational entity of which the local church is but one expression of the body of Christ. This, is a major part of the problem in policing and dealing with the Protestant church. Not that the hierarchy is a solution to all problems, as the Roman Catholic Church makes clear. But at least there is accountability at the local level higher up the chain.

But here is a second point--- Christianity has always been part of America's cultural heritage. The country has usually agreed that heritage should be preserved, even nurtured. Why not see these benefactions as a legitimate manifestation of that cultural support? Why in the world would we want a strict separation of church and state in non-doctrinal and non-ethical matters anyway? I see no need for it.

Ben W.

Terry Hamblin said...

It is interesting that in England where there is an established church there is nothing like the abuse that occurs in America. Church of England schools are subject to exactly the same regulations as state schools, church employees are covered by secular employment regulations (it is doubtful that they could even be dismissed for religious reasons), churches have charitable status it is true, but this is carefully monitored by the Charities Commission, which, for instance, forbids any political activity. Business activities would not be covered by charitable status.

Moreover, the charitable status is not confined to the established church; not only Baptists and Methodists and Catholics can avail themselves of it, but so can Jews, Moslems and Hindus, and indeed any other religious group. (They may draw the line at Satanists, but I'm not certain.) There are Jewish, Catholic, and Moslem schools within the state system.

What advantages are there to the established church? Most important is the fact that everybody who does not declare otherwise is assumed to be within the Church of England, so that everyone is entitled to be baptized, married and buried within the church. Everyone is a church of England parishioner, so that the vicar might turn up univited on your doorstep (though you are at liberty to turn him away - he feels you are his obligation).

The big advantage is that a number of Bishops sit in the House of Lords. Although this sounds an intrusion of the church into government, the House of Lords has no real power. It can listen and warn and even delay, but be an unelected body it is the slave of the Commons. Arrangements are made so that prominent members of other faiths also have seats there.

It seems to me as a non-Anglican that the whole separation of church and state issue is a straw man. It was a serious matter in the eighteenth century but no longer.

Brian said...

I am thinking less and less about the need for churches getting tax breaks - it is something the government can hang over our heads to try to threaten us in to clamming up.

instead i think we should cut the ties and be free from the governmental control - this will allow is to more effectively maintain a prophetic stance in our nation and in our world. (by prophetic I mean Micah or Amos style).

I also like how the Methodist church handled the situation to which Dr W referred to.

José Solano said...

A nice thing about our democracy is that we have the freedom to move in and out of varied denominations. If we don't like the hierarchical system where the total teaching, as in the early church, comes from the top down, we can become Presbyterians or whatever. When we think that the local elders are straying from the correct doctrine we can try something else or put together our own church.

As in the earliest churches, people, even bishops, can stray from the teaching. Since we are now literate and able to read the Bible and study Christian history we can figure out what is right and wrong and make intelligent decisions. (Ah, that's at least possible for many.) As I believe that the Holy Spirit is not confined to a particular group of people in a necessarily permanent basis and really "bloweth where it listeth," our situation facilitates the separation of the wheat from the chaff. Hence, though I prefer "being of one mind," I see the doctrinal disputes and deviations that have always occurred as, in a sense, having a wholesome, house cleaning function.

As the body of elected elders in congregational churches becomes infiltrated by people of little biblical understanding and much engagement in political and sociological correctness, or when particular bishops succumb to the lusts of the flesh and endorse heresies, the Holy Spirit simply moves elsewhere and those who follow the Spirit move with Him.

As for the New York Times, I cannot help but see ulterior motives in their series of intense criticism of the relationship between church and state, even as some excesses are objectively pointed out.

Rainsborough said...

Mr. Barnwell (who, it might be mentioned, now has a blog of his own at, says “it would be better for pastors to bite the bullet and pay their fair share of taxes (perhaps churches could help offset some of that increased cost on pastors?)” Perhaps Pastor Barnwell and some others as well would stay in the pulpit even if they had at their disposal a few thousand less a year. But as any employer, any economist, anybody trained up in a capitalist economy will tell you, it you lower the price, supply will diminish. In this instance, if you cut the wages of ministers, there will be fewer of them—fewer congregations, probably less growth. Clerics of all sorts (80%+ of them Christian) are more plentiful because of tax breaks, just as more or less religious activities are more plentiful because of tax breaks and subsidies.

So it’s true to say “less government, less religion.” Repeal the laws and reverse the practices the Times reports (whatever their motives), and the result will be less religion—that is, fewer purveyors of the gospel and less gospel (and a good many less evangelical products whose profits accrue to those designated “religious”) than there are now under these generous fiscal regimes.

Mr. Barnwell suggests that some men of the cloth are dressed that way nowadays because of the cash to be had, and that increasingly the gospel message may be shaped by a desire to meet the standards of receipt of benefit established in the laws and regulations of the state. He intimates that this might have a corrupting effect on the church.

No doubt it might. But we’ve always known that tax advantages and subsidies once in place seldom disappear. And now we know that Christian churches and other more or less Christian organizations are in receipt of large benefits and that these benefits have increased sharply over the last decade or so. And we know that Americans remain favorably disposed toward the advancement of religion.

So I’d say Mr. Barnwell’s blog is well named. Only voices crying in the wilderness will inquire whether these “gains” will prove to do the true gospel more harm than good. (And fewer still will inquire whether it’s fair or constitutional to so advantage even adherents of true Christianity.)

Chris Miller said...

Here's a random thought...

I can only find one instance in Jesus' earthly ministry were he directly addressed a political issue. What was his advice? Pay your taxes. That seems to be the one area of politics where the church is absent. I realize a lot of what Jesus taught does have political implications, but I just find sad irony in this taxes thing.

Bill Barnwell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill Barnwell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt said...

Ben wrote,
"And what is especially telling is that it is low church Protestants who formerly screamed loudest about separation of church and state who are now taking full advantage of such new laws, while still preaching that the government is a menace to and is endangering the separation of church and state rules. What’s up with that?"

It seems like lack of state regulations on Christian institutions IS the handsoff/separation approach. It seems like a contradiction to me to say this separation is breaking down because religious groups don't have to follow the same rules. When the government tells the church what they should or shouldn't do or what they can or cannot say - isn't that a breakdown is separation? Or maybe I am just looking at this backward.

David said...


Thanks for the link to this interesting, but wrongly titled, article.

First, the article is wrongly titled since if Church and State were truly separate there would not be any need for the Church to receive exemptions from Civil government (as the Civil government wouldn't regulate anything that churches do). I'm not suggesting that this is the course we should follow, but simply to observe that Church-State issues are often approached with the assumption that Church government should be subordinate to Civil government. How can such a view be described as "separation of Church and State"?

Second. Real life is messy. It might be nice to have a system where, for example, the tax code was designed simply to collect money rather than as an instrument of social engineering. Yet, Americans as a whole seem to have no desire to implement such a system. Even the so-called "Flat Tax" has never received the support of a significant minority of the electorate. No-one is even attempting to advocate for a truly "Flat Tax" where everyone pays the same rate without any personal examptions at all. The current system is a bewildering mass of exemptions and special regulations. Isolating how these exemptions effect "religious" organiztions my make an interesting story - but they don't lead to effective policy unless we are willing to reform the entire system. In my judgment - we are not.

Best wishes,