Tag Archives: separation of church and state

Church, State, Gay, Straight

Okay, it’s time for one of my broken-record rants.

In the wake of President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, we’ve had a predictable–and increasingly tiresome–outpouring of criticisms to the effect that government recognition of such unions violates the “religious liberty” of those who oppose them.

No, it doesn’t.

Government recognition of civil same-sex marriages is no different from government’s recognition of heterosexual divorce. Divorce violates the religious doctrines of Catholics and several other Christian denominations. Those denominations remain free to expel divorced congregants, to refuse to recognize their newly single status, to preach against divorce, or to take such other congregational action as may be dictated by their particular theologies. Meanwhile, the government adjusts the legal, civil and tax status of divorced folks. It recognizes the reality of their severed relationship.

If every state in the country were to recognize same-sex marriage tomorrow–if they were to recognize the reality of same-sex relationships–churches would still be free to reject gay parishioners, to refuse to perform same-sex unions, and to preach about the sin of homosexuality in accordance with their doctrines. But gay couples could file joint tax returns. Their children would be covered under their employers’  health insurance policies. They would be entitled to hospital visitation, Social Security survivor benefits, and the full panoply of civil rights to which legally married folks are entitled. Last time I looked, there were well over a thousand such rights that my husband and I enjoy automatically because the government recognizes our marriage.

It has been obvious for a very long time that the only genuine objection to same-sex marriage is religious. There are no credible secular arguments, as was painfully clear from the trial testimony in California’s Proposition 8  litigation. Numerous studies have confirmed that children raised by gay parents–and there are millions of them–are just as well-adjusted and happy as those raised by heterosexuals. All of the public policy reasons for encouraging heterosexual marriage apply with equal force to homosexual ones. The “slippery slope” argument has best been rebutted by Bill Maher, who noted that allowing women to vote did not–surprise!–usher in voting rights for dogs or vegetables.

Furthermore, not all religions are homophobic. A growing number of denominations are welcoming gays and lesbians and celebrating same-sex marriages.

What we are seeing now is the last gasp of the fundamentalists who believe–contrary to history and the American constitution–that the U.S. is a Christian Nation, and not simply Christian, but their particular brand of Christian. When we deconstruct their argument, it boils down to a conviction that whenever the government allows behavior of which they disapprove, government has violated their religious liberty.

Next time we go to war, tell that to the Quakers.

Church and State in Texas

A friend recently sent me a copy of a Court Order approving a settlement in a hotly contested case from a small town in Texas. The Plaintiffs had complained that the school corporation engaged in pervasive and unconstitutional religious activities over a period of years–prayers over the loudspeakers, constant religious references by the Principal, prayers at athletic contests and graduation ceremonies and more. Students who complained were disciplined.

The judge’s opinion–especially the unusual “Personal Note” that he added–are worth reading in their entirety; the Personal Note appears below. His Appendix–which is not reproduced, but is also accessible on line–is a first-rate history of church/state relations through American history. I particularly appreciated the opening section of the Opinion, “What this case was NOT about,” in which he made a point not sufficiently emphasized: any child can pray in school at any time. The issue is whether public school officials–arms of the government–can promote or require that prayer.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a press release detailing the major elements of the settlement:

* School district personnel will not display crosses, religious images, religious quotations, Bibles or religious texts, or other religious icons or artifacts on the walls, hallways, and other areas at the school.

* The district will not invite speakers, including government officials or community leaders, whom it has reason to believe will proselytize or promote religion during their remarks.

* The Medina Valley High School student handbook will contain a section on students’ rights to religious freedom, including the importance of respect for and tolerance of students from all backgrounds and the specific procedures for registering a complaint with district personnel about violations.

* The district will provide annual training to all district personnel who interact with students or parents or who supervise those who interact with students or parents. The training will cover a variety of topics related to students’ rights and church-state separation.

The release clarifies the terms of the agreement, but it’s only when you read the brief “Personal Statement” the Judge appended that you really appreciate the nastiness of the controversy, and the tenor of the “debate” conducted by the “religious” folk involved.


During the course of this litigation,many have played a part:

To the United States Marshal Service and local police who have provided heightened security: Thank you.

To those Christians who have venomously and vomitously cursed the Court family and threatened bodily harm and assassination:In His name,I forgive you.

To those who have prayed for my death: Your prayers will some day be answered,as inevitability trumps probability.

To those in the executive and legislative branches of government who have demagogued this case for their own political goals:You should be ashamed of yourselves.

To the lawyers who have advocated professionally and respectfully for their clients’ respective positions:Bless you.”




Pathetic Policy Discourse

There are a lot of examples of what happens when those making policy don’t know what they are talking about, but here’s one that just annoys the hell out of me every time it comes up.

The New York legislature is preparing to vote on whether the state will recognize same-sex marriage. The Times reports that one of the “concessions” being demanded is explicit language protecting churches that refuse to officiate at such unions.

I know I harp on the importance of constitutional literacy, but this is a perfect example of what happens when even the most basic, rudimentary constitutional knowledge is absent.

The First Amendment religion clauses not only protect all of us from governmentally-imposed  religion, those clauses also protect the free exercise rights of religious organizations. That means–at a minimum–that government cannot force churches to engage in activities that are counter to their beliefs. Churches and other religious organizations are even exempt from civil rights laws when hiring for religious positions. Bottom line, it would be unconstitutional to demand that clergymen officiate at same-sex weddings, and any effort to sue them for refusing to do so would be immediately tossed out of court.

Furthermore, the “marriage” that government recognizes is civil marriage only. Government classifies people as married for purposes of determining who is entitled to the 1000+ legal benefits that accompany recognition of that contractual relationship. Civil and religious marriage are different. Governments do not and cannot “sanctify” a marital union–for that, people have to go to their respective churches (a growing number of which are willing to do so). Our constitution separates church and state (no matter what Michele Bachmann and her ilk think), and that separation means government has no authority over religious doctrine and belief.

When political actors demand statutory “protection” for churches, you can be sure the actor is either dishonest or ignorant (not that these categories are mutually exclusive). Granted, adding language that duplicates the existing constitutional protection doesn’t require proponents of same-sex marriage to give anything up. But it implicitly suggests that–absent such language–the government could make the demand in the first place, and adds to the ever-growing stupidity of our national discourse.