Church and State

Lots of confusion these days about the separation of church and state. It certainly sounds good to keep the church and government separate. Otherwise we may well end up with a government controlled by a religious organization, or worse, one religious leader, read: dictator, whether he/she is religious or not. Or we might have a president resolved to outlaw churches in our country.

Keeping church and state separate would indicate that no politician should discuss or be questioned about his/her religious beliefs. That should have nothing at all to do with a person’s electability. Yet in our ongoing struggle to get into congress and the presidency, each and every politician must avow his firm and ongoing religious beliefs. What does this mean? Does he/she ask the pastor on Sunday whether we should put boots on the ground in yet another country? If Catholic, does the president go into confession and say, “I have sinned. What should I do?” Hopefully a gentle voice comes through the screen saying: “Lower taxes.”

Okay, and now comes the argument that religious organizations don’t have to obey the laws that govern most of us.

In some countries, like France, wearing a veil causes a lot of problems. Sounds innocuous enough doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t a person be allowed to wear a veil if that’s her religious belief? All over the world thousands of men wear kippas without creating controversy. But a kippa is a cap; a veil is a mask.

What if a masked man or woman wanders into a Seven-Eleven? Should the clerk dive under the counter for his shotgun or smilingly assume this is just another case of religious freedom in action? What if a group of veiled women walk into a bank? The guard innocently assumes they’re just exercising their religious freedom, but they suddenly whip AK47s from beneath their robes.

In our area there has been some controversy over Sikhs wearing a ceremonial dagger on their belts. At this time, many a man goes about with some sort of folding knife attached to his belt, so why not? Why not extend this freedom to firearms. I can walk down the street packing my Dirty Harry revolver and woe to any policeman who questions this. He’s questioning my religious freedom. I say the Lord wants me to pack iron. I had a revelation. An epiphany. Maybe my pastor revealed this to me during a prayer meeting last week.

Suppose I am pastor of a little congregation. We have a storefront church. It’s not much, but we like it. The adjacent store becomes vacant so we decide to open a little thrift store. We sure need the money.

Is this thrift store a business or part of our church?

To me this seems painfully clear: If the thrift store is run and operated exclusively by volunteers under a non-profit charter, then it’s part of the church membership and enjoys the same freedom as its members do when next door listening to my Sunday sermons. The volunteers also get to enjoy the lack of medical insurance and concerns about overtime pay and vacations.

On a larger scale, when a religious organization operates a thrift store or a hospital, does it depend on volunteers? I don’t think so. Well, a thrift store, just maybe in some instances, but….

With the exception perhaps of a few volunteers who sit at information desks, every person working in a hospital is an employee. Employees punch time clocks, they get days off, they get checks periodically and they get paid vacations. This is a business. It may not be run for a profit — many other businesses don’t make a profit — but it’s still a business and hires employees. Why then should it not have to obey the same laws that apply to Safeway and the Home Depot down the street?

We already have strange religious practices that are against our laws. Polygamy. Whackos who believe in sleeping with children, who would watch their entire congregation burn to the ground. We have whackos who convince their members to commit mass suicide. In some countries not wearing a veil is a lot more serious than wearing one in France. I mean a lot more serious.

Freedom of religion is a wonderful right we share in this country, but there are always those who are only too willing to abuse this right. We have to tread very carefully.

What if a church tells its congregation it has decided to have members volunteer their children to do housekeeping in the church’s non-profit hospital? The church could save lots of money. Kids can sweep and mop floors, take out soiled linens, empty bedpans etc. Well, sure, we have laws about child labor, but hey, this is a religious organization and as devout members you should be happy to send your children over for a few hours work every week. Builds character.

Many years ago I lived on a dead-end street that had a church sitting squarely at the end, facing down the street. When the church hosted meetings, the entire street would be filled with parked cars. When I came home from work on these occasions, there was no place to park. Okay, I realized the members had to park someplace and this was a public street, but I still feel it was an abuse of the rights of the residents of that street. No members seemed to know or care that they were blocking the entire street from residents for several hours several times a week.

That’s just a minor annoyance, but what if that church also decided to install huge loudspeakers on its roof and blast music twenty-four/seven? What if it decided to sacrifice a lamb on the front steps every Sunday morning?  What if it decided to marry off members’ daughters at the age of ten?

To me a church is a church. Members can believe whatever they want to, but this must be fused with common sense. When the beliefs of religious groups are potentially harmful to their members or non-members, they’re stepping on our rights as citizens.

To me it’s very simple: Just as we have separation of church and state in the U.S. we should have separation of church and business.

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