Build the Wall Between Church and State

 

Many people think of separation of church and state in terms of how individuals are affected — how they worship, who they can marry, whether they can get health care, what their children are taught in school, whether they will be served at a business, receive government benefits or be banned from this country if they have different religious beliefs or offend the business’ or government official’s religious sensibilities.  But fewer think about how houses of worship and faith leaders are affected.

Separation of church and state prevents houses of worship and their faith leaders from being controlled or contaminated by government interference or partisan politics.  Some recent efforts to chip away at the wall would directly affect houses of worship and faith leaders.

One such effort is President Trump’s quest to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which is a federal tax code provision that bars tax-exempt organizations from directly or indirectly participating in or intervening in a campaign for or against any candidate for elective public office (see more at www.projectfairplay.org).  This law keeps sanctuaries sacred, and it protects congregations from partisan divisions and being used to funnel political donations.  Changing the law is deeply unpopular among religious and denominational organizations, charitable nonprofits, faith leaders, and the American public.

Another development is allowing or even requiring that churches be eligible for federal or state funding for their churches.  Last year, the US Supreme Court decided in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer that a Missouri church can’t be excluded from a taxpayer-funded grant program that makes playgrounds safer by paying to resurface them with recycled tires,  even though the state’s constitution forbids giving public funds to churches.  Then, after being damaged in Hurricane Harvey, three Houston-area churches sued FEMA demanding that they be given access to a limited pool of government grants for rebuilding, which FEMA policy made available only to nonprofit organizations that provide emergency or essential, government-like services to the general public.  The courts ruled against the churches, until FEMA changed its longstanding policy and allowed taxpayer money to be used to rebuild houses of worship damaged in disasters.

Many faith leaders oppose such efforts to weaken the  wall that separates state interference from their religious practice.  They know that separation protects their independence and integrity and that religion and partisan politics don’t mix.

On June 5, at the annual meeting of the Houston chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, three respected faith leaders from our community will discuss their concerns about efforts to weaken the protective wall and their responses as faith leaders and as congregations.  We hope they will share their personal stories and reasons for what they feel about church-state separation.

We invite the community to join us at this free event, starting at 7:00 p.m. at the United Way.

Nancy Friedman
President,
Americans United for Separation of Church and State Houston Chapter