Why Separation of Church and State Means Churches Must Abide by the Laws They Don't Like

I guess there have always been attempts by churches to be excused from following the laws that go against their religious teachings.  I am being careful not to say laws that go against their morals, because morals and religious teachings are separate sources of what's right and wrong, that for some people are very connected, and for others - are not.  So I'm speaking here only about the church's interpretations, based on their particular dogma and doctrines, for what is acceptable conduct and what is not.

Recently, several churches, hospitals, universities and private individuals claiming religious belief have argued, and even sued the federal government, for their right to go against current legal requirements for allowing their female employees access to birth control under their health insurance (even if the insurer pays the full cost, which they're willing to do because family planning is much cheaper than the alternative), for example, or for recognizing the homosexual marriage of employees, patients or students who are legally married in states that recognize them (or the legal civil unions and associated medical power of attorney in states that do not).

There has also been a steady drumbeat from the very far right that Islamists in America are trying to create Shariah-law friendly zones and to implement Shariah law in jurisdictions across America.

I want to sit these folks down and explain to them very carefully that the one thing they are trying to do above, opens the door for exactly what they most fear and oppose.  I think most people understand this, but in case they don't, I'm going to spell it out, step by step, so that folks understand that when we stand up and say, no, the church cannot pick and choose which laws it will abide by, it's to protect them and the rest of us, not to harm them and not to disrespect them.

Let's say, for example, that a law is passed that says churches and organizations affiliated with churches may submit applications for waivers from local and federal laws that would otherwise require them to go against their religious teachings.  The way laws work, it would not be possible to say specifically which type of churches are allowed this privilege.  For example, it would not be okay to say only Christian churches could exercise this privilege, because that would be a state endorsement of a specific religion, which I think we all agree is a no-no under the First Amendment.  So the law would be written to generally allow religious institutions and their affiliates to be excused from following laws that go against their teachings.

All churches, of all faiths.

The effect of a law like this would be to create a massive loophole in democracy for all religious organizations to do as their holy books, cardinals, imams, rabbis, elders, etc. instruct instead of what the law requires.  A child denied life-saving cancer treatment on the basis of the parents' religious beliefs?  Excused.  Daughters denied education on the basis of the parents' religious beliefs?  Excused.  Polygamy?  Excused.  Chopping off a hand as punishment for theft within the community?  Excused.

This is the problem.  Once it is put into law, in any degree, that religious belief is allowed to override laws that conflict with faith or beliefs, the principle that religion trumps the democratic process has now entered the law and become legal precedent.  This is exactly what you do not want in a free country.  It is an extremely dangerous path to start down, and it opens the door to religion - any religion - to override secular principles of justice and individual freedoms and liberties, including most importantly the right of freedom of conscience, that are the foundation of our country's legal and political system. 

Those who follow a specific religion are already, right now, free to make choices in their own, personal lives to live as they see fit:  don't believe in gay marriage?  No one's forcing you into one.  Don't believe in science?  Then forego your own medical care and stop using the internet.  Don't believe in birth control?  No one's forcing you to use it.  But the examples given above are all cases where members of a religious organization would require others to also live by their particular religious beliefs rather than by the individual's own conscience.  You can't have it both ways, folks.  If you want freedom of conscience, which is the law right now, then you have to respect everyone else's freedom of conscience, too.  Even if you disagree with how they are living their lives.  It's their choice, their life, but most importantly, it's the law.  It's the result of the secular, democratic process.  And once we give special dispensation to avoid the law based on  religious beliefs, we open the door for all religious beliefs to avoid the law.  This is a sacred boundary, and it cannot be breached, for anyone, ever.


We're On Your Side

My teenage years were hard.  I entered them with little to no resources for taking care of myself emotionally, for recognizing and protecting myself from people who would use me, manipulate me, disrespect my personal boundaries and treat me horribly.  I sought out attention from my peers, however I could obtain it, and was desperate for anything that resembled affection.  I was also in a lot of pain, felt isolated and worthless, and sought to numb all of those feelings with substances.

It's a wonder I survived those years. 

I came out of it rather early, and somewhat painfully, around fifteen.  I had a life-altering moment in which I realized, in a crystallizing epiphany, that the person who would ultimately live the consequences of all of my choices was not any of the people who were telling me what to do or that they knew better than I did what was best for me.  It was me.  I alone would have to live out the effects of these decisions.  And therefore no one - No. One. - had the authority to tell me how I should live my life.

This was the beginning of a long road of learning what it meant to be a successful, happy human.  A road I'm still discovering and building.

There's something important that I want my kids to hear, so I've started to say it to them, because the older one is eight, and soon things will start to show up in his life that carry more consequences, more traps, more risks for screwing up.  I want them to hear that their stepdad and I are on their side.  I said it to them the other day.  No matter what they had done, no matter how upset it might make me to hear about it, we're always here to help them.  They can count on us.  We will comfort them.  We will protect them.  We will be on their side.  Always.

One of my biggest fears as they grow older is the emergence of a space between us where I become on the outside of their lives, of what's happening to them, inside of them, and that I'm not even aware of how large this space has become.  I know that there will be some space.  It's a necessary part of becoming an adult.  But I want to be sure that if something happens to them that really scares them, no matter how ashamed they feel about it or how badly they think they screwed up, that they will come to us, because they will know that they don't have to carry it alone.  So I've started telling them now, and trying to practice good empathetic listening, and staying calm and non-judging when little things go wrong, so that when big things go wrong later, they'll still come to us. 

When I was a teenager, people already talked about how different and more dangerous the world was for my generation - AIDS, cocaine, gangs, and the explosion of pornography with cable tv and VHS recording all preyed upon the future of youth.  And that was before the internet.  Before this insane proliferation of guns in homes and purses and car glove compartments.  Before Mexican cartels moved into our neighborhoods.  Before human traficking and forced prostitution warranted their own budgets and departments in local crime enforcement.  Before organizations dedicated solely to protecting and advocating for child victims of sexual abuse even existed.

So besides keeping the computers in the family room, talking with them about how to choose their friends, teaching them bit by bit that there are dangers out there that they need to watch out for and avoid, I also want to add in, and if (when) you screw up, come to us.  Whatever pain you are in, we are your parents, we are strong, let us carry it with you and help you through it.  We will listen.  We care.  We will always be on your side.

I hope and pray that by the time they become teenagers, the bridge we have built will be strong and familiar enough that they will meet us on it, by habit, no matter how large the spaces between us have become.