Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Separation of Church & State - The Bill of Rights

Two things inspired this post and at least one that will follow it.  First, on July 4, James Dunn died.  James was one of my heroes as the director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  James was an amazing man who was a tireless advocate for the Baptist idea of soul freedom as it related to religious liberty for all people.  You can read a short bio of James here.   He was an amazing man and I was blessed to spend the little snippets of time that I spent with him over the years.

The second piece is a recurring theme that I see on Facebook calling for churches to pay taxes.  More about this in a later post...

So, first I'd like to speak a little about the bill of rights and the ways that document impacts religious organizations. 

Often we hear of the freedom of the press as being "The first freedom."  The reality is that freedom of the press is actually the third freedom mentioned in the bill of rights following freedom of speech, and first, freedom of religion.  That's correct.  The very first freedom mentioned in the Bill of Rights is freedom of religion. 

Let me make very clear one critical observation about the Bill of Rights... it's purpose is to limit the power of government.  It defines where the government cannot tread.  It says that government may not establish religion nor impede religion.  It does not limit religious actions in any way, including involvement in political activity.  Indeed, to the degree that political activity is dictated by religious commitments, it implies that the government does not have the ability to interfere.

One other quick observation... folk often conflate other non-profit organizations with religious bodies and indeed, the laws that are often used to restrict or support non-profits are often applied to religious organizations.  It is important to note that other non-profit type organizations are not mentioned in the Bill of Rights.  Religious organizations have a special status in the Bill of Rights that other organizations, regardless of how important they might be to the function of society, do not have.  Common wisdom says that non-profits receive their status because of the good they do in society with the implication that whenever that good recedes, their status disappears.  There is no such expectation placed on religious organizations in the Bill of Rights.  Religion does not have to contribute anything to the broader society to receive its status. 

Finally, it should be realized that the concept of separation of church and state came primarily from religious groups, mainly the Baptists, Quakers, and Unitarians.  These groups championed "soul freedom," the idea that an individuals relationship with God is between that person and God and the state has no role in defining it, supporting it, or impeding it.  Thus Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase, "wall of separation," was written in a letter he sent to the Danbury Baptist Association who had written him to encourage him to enshrine separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights.  Jefferson wrote back to assure the he would include a wall of separation.  The texts of the correspondence can be found here.

A couple of conclusions...
1. religious organizations have special status in the constitution whether we like that or not.
2. that special status leads to a unique relationship between government and religious organizations.
3. while we certainly can change the constitution, there would be consequences for such a move.  To remove the establishment or impediment clause might indeed open the door to an established religion and those who argue for the United States as a "Christian" nation, might just get their way.  At the very least, those who are part of minority traditions (possibly including atheists), could find themselves suffering under official law.

In the next post, I'll talk about taxes and churches...

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