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October 13, 2006

State Helps Churches

A powerful new investigative series has been running in the New York Times, exposing increasing number of ways American laws are favoring religious institutions. It is worth quoting:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide "war on religion" that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations -- from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples -- enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation's history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years -- sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized "earmarks" benefiting other special interests.
An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.
The special breaks amount to "a sort of religious affirmative action program," said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.
Professor Witte added: "Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today's public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land."

My underline at the bottom. Is Prof. Witte right?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at October 13, 2006 3:30 PM


I hope not. The very last thing we need is a breakdown in separation of church and state while the religious right still has power in its grasp.
Personally, I think religious institutions should have the same tax-exempt status as other non-profits. No more. No less. As for the rest, I think we can stop at the regulations protecting the privacy of discussion between a person and their spiritual advisor.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at October 13, 2006 3:48 PM

Wondered when you were going to mention this very important series here, M.

Guess Prof. Witte is right technically speaking, but not if one considers this question in terms that have come up here before (I've contributed my share as have others), i.e., that the discourse animating the founding concepts and laws of this country is saturated in the onto-theology of Enlightenment humanism which maintains a judaeo-christian metaphysics (God is named overtly in many of these documents, of course). So that "separation of church and state" is technical only: no endorsement of a particular church, denomination, dogma or doctrine... but genuine separation of the ontological principles of church and state? not on your life. That is the only way that such "breaks" could be "tucked in" to recent legislation, "anonymously and without attention."

Posted by: JM at October 13, 2006 8:03 PM

If the prez and his minions can publically act as representatives of religion, then we can safely say that the wall is in danger of collapsing. Personally, I'm in favor of not allowing tax relief or any other special privileges to churches. If they can't make it on their own, then their slippery foundations will be more easily revealed.

Posted by: Catana at October 14, 2006 1:18 PM

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