Bob Franken

Not So Divine Intervention

Those who believe the First Amendment should prohibit ANY ties between our government and religious organizations have gotten strong support for their arguments in recent days.

It seems that these deals with the angels have strings attached that fly right into the First Amendment’s prohibition against government’s ”
— establishment of religion—”

Last week it was the Catholic Bishops exerting their will into the health care debate. In effect, they were threatening to bring the massive reform legislation down if they could not impose their beliefs on abortion.

Now, in Washington, it’s the Archdiocese threatening to pull the plug on Catholic Charities. At issue: DC’s proposed same-sex marriage law that would prohibit discrimination against gays. Requiring equal treatment, in matters like benefits for employee would run afoul of church teachings.

The problem is that the Catholic Charities programs are a significant part of the social services infrastructure in the District. Their good works on behalf of children, the homeless, and so many others in need are an integral part of the safety net here, just as they are in some many cities. But now they’re threatening to cut the net.

If their contentions sound familiar it’s because they’re exactly like the ones heard in the black civil rights struggle when some other leaders from other churches claimed that racial oppression was justified in The Bible and/or ordained by God.

Different century, different civil rights movement, same argument that religious freedom allows discrimination. After all, doesn’t the First Amendment also allow “—the free exercise” of their beliefs?

Setting aside the point that the law imposes limits on the “free exercise” of just about everything we might want to do. But let’s not focus on whether churches have the right to believe anything they want.

Instead, let’s examine whether they have the right to impose those beliefs after they’ve intertwined with public programs and made themselves indispensable and in effect, a part of government.

It’s always tempting. What they operate and finance, the taxpayer doesn’t have to. As for the politicians, there are payoffs for currying favor with religious leaders, but the danger is the implied threat about losing support if he or she falls into disfavor.

This is a real dilemma. In the case of DC, the local government should say “see ya” and cut the ties as it looks for secular ways to help society’s needy. At the very least, officials should demand that any support comes with a strict understanding there are no strings attached.

As for health care, when a religion tells lawmakers, in effect, “It’s my way or the highway”, the response should be “Enjoy the highway”.

Otherwise it is just a short journey from church interference to the religious oppression that those who came to these lands were trying to escape.

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