4.25.2013

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.

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