Friday, October 24, 2008

Bishops and Ministers Speak Out - It Is Their Right

OK, let's revisit this issue. I have a Google agent that informs me of articles on the web that mention "separation of church and state." Lately the alerts I get are almost all about one of two issues:

1) Catholic Bishops saying publicly that true Catholics must consider a candidate's stance on abortion before voting, and

2) Ministers/pastors expressing their opinion about candidates and political issues from the pulpit.

In each case, Americans United for Separation of Church and State are objecting. They are even complaining to the Internal Revenue Service about this. The IRS has tax laws that say tax-exempt churches may not engage in political activity. We take this for granted as a fact of life today, I suppose, but that does not meet history's test. In our early days, church leaders would often speak out in such ways. In fact, the church drove many political reforms (including freeing slaves). In those days we didn't have the IRS and its volumes of tax laws - those came later.

Long before the IRS was born, we had a Constitution that is our rudder (or should be) to this day. Some of its writers were afraid that the rights of the people and the limits on the Federal Government were not clear enough, so they insisted on having a Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments of the Consitution). The very first of these amendments says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

If one reads that, how can one allow the IRS to create a law saying that a pastor can not speak out about political issues? How could such a law stand up in court? The Amendment says there can be no Federal law restricting free exercise, and no law restricing free speech. Doesn't that pretty much protect the Bishops and ministers? And more importantly, doesn't it seem to guide the Congress to never pass such a law in the first place? [Note: many of the ministers speaking out this year are hoping they will end up in court in order to challenge that law.]

"How did we get where we are today?" is answered by decisions the Supreme Court made starting about 60 years ago. In some cases the Court would quote a metaphor Thomas Jefferson used in a letter: "separation of church and state." The Court built decisions on those words without quoting the actual words of the First Amendment.

Jefferson himself warned about a couple things that relate to this. First, he told us how the Constitution MUST be interpretated:

Jefferson on Interpretating the Constitution

Then he also wrote of his fear (or prediction) that the courts would gradually assume more and more power, well beyond what the founders intended. And that has happened today. Courts have become the most powerful of the three branches of government; they often overturn laws passed by a strong majority of the legislature, desired by a strong majority of the population, and signed by the executive branch. Here is what Jefferson thought about that:

Various organizations will give you a copy of the Constitution, or you can find one online without spending anything. We should all have a copy and we should all have read it. Every President and member of Congress swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It's time they get back to doing that!

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