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.