Respecting the Boundary Between Church and State

What I once thought was a pretty bright line is getting awfully blurry these days.

President Obama has been roundly criticized in recent weeks for his heavy-handed regulatory move to require employers, including church-affiliated institutions, to offer contraceptive care as part of their health insurance plans. African-American pastors and other religious organizations in Maryland have been making news with their vocal opposition to new laws granting same-sex couples the same legal marriage rights as the rest of us. In the Republican primary campaign, Rick Santorum went on a diatribe against President John F. Kennedy and his iconic speech in defense of the separation of church and state, saying it made him want to "throw up."

Really? Is he saying that, if elected, he would obliterate the distinction altogether? It sure sounds that way. In any case, if he says much more on the subject, I think I'll want to throw up.

This issue goes way beyond election-year politics. There is a fundamental principle of American democracy at stake here. Forgetting that fact is just one more troublesome step away from our Founders' intent and closer to an Iranian-style theocracy, to use an extreme example, but you get the point. Last time I checked, we were not a Christian nation, or a Jewish nation, or a Buddhist, Muslim or atheist nation. We are a democratic nation. That means we don't get to tell each other what to believe, and we don't get to use our own religious convictions — no matter how strongly held — as a basis for limiting the rights of others. This is America, and that is one of our bedrock principles. Does anyone seriously disagree with this?

So that's really the point we should all be remembering here in Maryland as voters prepare for what looks to be an inevitable push by same-sex marriage opponents to bring the recently passed Marriage Equality Act to referendum this fall. Before anyone rushes out to add their name to the petitions that I am sure will be circulating at the grocery store and around the pews in the coming months, let's all take a moment to think this one through.

First, while some Christians consider homosexuality a sin, that view is not universally shared within the Christian faith, nor among people of many other faiths. There is ample basis in scripture to support a wide range of interpretations. There is also a pretty clear consensus among behavioral scientists that sexual orientation is just one of those things — like race and gender — that we're born with. So how could it be a sin if it's not even a choice for most people? Therefore, to limit one's rights on this basis is discrimination, pure and simple.

Whether or not you accept this argument, the more important point is, as people of faith, we have forgotten our place in a democracy. These are questions we should be discussing in our churches, synagogues, mosques and around the family dinner table, not writing into our laws. We cross a dangerous line into oppression the minute we restrict the rights of others, or set up a separate legal status for any group in our society based on how we interpret a passage from Paul's letter to the Romans (one immediately followed by a clear admonition against judging each other, by the way). The Christian faith teaches us humility, but where is the humility in the inflammatory words so many pastors are using to whip up opposition in their congregations right now, before the ink is even dry on the bill?

What has happened to our core American values, including the fundamental democratic principles of separation of church and state and equal protection under law? Politicians, preachers, and advocates on all sides ought to reflect long and hard on what it means to be a person of faith, but also what it means to be an American, before charging out to the barricades.

So, when it comes to the same-sex marriage issue, let's remember that marriage is not just a religious sacrament before God: It is also an important, legally recognized, family status that carries with it certain rights, responsibilities and privileges before City Hall. People of every religious faith will still be able to define, perform — or refuse to perform — marriages however they choose, and with absolute freedom under this new law. But we must also recognize that marriage has another more practical dimension that has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with fundamental civil rights and the freedom to marry the person of your choice, without government intervention.

If we believe in religious freedom, we all need to respect the fact that we're not all going to agree on matters of faith, and none of us has the right to impose our views by statute. This is why even the most conservative Christians, who believe passionately that homosexuality is wrong, should not be so quick to sign anyone's petition to repeal this law.

I'm with JFK on this one.  The separation of church and state is a principle worth defending. If you believe in democracy, this is your time to show it.

Jim Coyle March 05, 2012 at 02:40 AM
There is a growing % of the population that count themselves as either agnostics or aethiest; this % will keep growing over time for a variety of reasons not the least of which are folks like Sic Rantorum. Are we in the 21st century or 10th century Rome?
Temperance Blalock March 05, 2012 at 02:47 AM
What is so weird is that the same people who want the USA to be an exclusively "Christian" nation are also the ones who are the most hysterical about pre-emptively legislating against Sharia law. One can only assume that it is projection, as when people fear the very thing that they themselves advocate.
Michael Brown March 05, 2012 at 12:31 PM
Richard, thank you for your thoughtful analysis. As a Christian, I've often been amazed by the frequency, scale, and scope by which the Christian Church tries to control how we live. Most other religions do the same. We forget the history of religion, Christian and non-Christian, both as puppeteer and puppet of government. The corrupting influence of power is absolute. We see it with money and we see it with religion. Those who feel that they are better by virtue of what they own or what they believe threaten a democracy. To them, only they see the right way. I fully support religion's role as a teacher of moral living among their followers. Yet, I believe the separation of Church and State must be absolute. I want the laws of my country to address the needs of society as a whole and not be formed or miss-formed by self-serving lobbyists, religious or secular. If a believer wants to forgive a murderer, I support their faith in a just God but I want the criminal in jail. If a believer does not want contraception, I support their decision to have a child or abstain but want the option available to others. All employers must offer the same minimum health benefits to their employees as established by law. The needs of the society should dictate policy not religious belief. The believers only need not to claim those benefits to satisfy their moral obligations. Clearly, belief is best when uncomplicated by reason.
Kathy B. Bock March 05, 2012 at 01:46 PM
Rich, good food for thought. We must never lose sight of the fact that these men are politicians who are more concerned with winning voter favor to retain power than about principles. It's up to the voter to push the envelope, ti stay informed, read thought-provoking articles, argue points of view, exchange information, and contact our legislators to keep the pressure on to shape "our" democracy.
Gburgatheist March 11, 2012 at 02:02 PM
Your bible may say that gay marriage is wrong, or contraception is a sin. But I'd sure like to see where in the constitution of the US it says this. For once, I'm agreeing with Rich. Clearly his best post


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