Aleck Loker, Writer

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Separation of Church and (Political) Statements

Posted by Aleck Loker on March 19, 2012 at 8:25 AM

Politicians invoke the Bill of Rights to cloak their ideology in a mantle of revered American liberties. The latest debate centers on the assertion that “Separation of Church and State” precludes churches or church-run institutions from having to provide certain medical insurance benefits to their employees. Here’s what the Bill of Rights has to say.

The first article in the Bill of Rights, says only this about religion, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founding fathers wanted to prevent the establishment of a national religion. Under British rule, all British subjects had to finance the Church of England. This financial support came from the treasury of each county in each colony as a significant stipends paid to Anglican ministers. Patrick Henry made his debut as an outspoken attorney in a law suit dealing with the payment of salaries to Anglican ministers. To this day in Britain, the Church of England is still linked to the national government. In the United States, thanks to the Bill of Rights, we don’t have a national religion.

The first amendment to the Constitution didn’t say that churches should be exempt from taxation. It didn’t offer an opinion on whether churches, as employers, should have to abide by minimum wage standards, or that a future Fair Labor Standards Act should apply to churches. Those issues came about by subsequent Congressional action and court interpretations. The founding fathers had nothing to say about employees of churches, when those churches entered into non-religious enterprises.

One candidate for president this year invokes separation of church and state when he argues against churches, particularly Catholic churches, having to provide contraceptives or abortion to their employees. Then that same candidate argues that the religion of someone running for president should be a relevant factor considered by voters—and says he does not believe in the “absolute” application the separation of church and state.

Debate over whether Mormons are Christians somehow seems relevant to those candidates attempting to garner the “fundamentalist” vote. Clearly, the founding fathers did not intend that only Christians could be elected to public office. How they might have handled requiring churches to provide birth control pills to their employees we will never know.

Employees of a church, that is those who work in the church as ministers or preachers delivering the doctrine of the church are different from employees of a church-owned and operated hospital. The mission of the former is to promulgate the teachings of the church; the mission of the latter is to provide health care to the citizens of the community in which the hospital is licensed to practice. When a church decides to operate a hospital, it departs from operating as a church and is now providing a public service.

Hospitals, whether owned by a church or by a for-profit conglomerate, must submit to licensing by the state. “Religious” hospitals accept Medicare payments and other support from the Federal government. They enjoy the advantage of tax exempt status as a non-profit entity, an advantage granted by the government (not in the Bill of Rights). Doctors, nurses, technicians, and other staff don’t preach to patients; they provide medical care. Catholic hospitals don’t limit their enrollment of patients to Catholics; they take patients in need regardless of religion. A church hospital may elect not to do abortions or not to do heart transplants. But when it comes to employee rights, employees of church-owned hospitals should expect to receive the same health insurance benefits as employees of any other enterprise in America.

 

 

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