Category Archives: Religion and State

Prayer: City of Lakeland 1, Atheists 0

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

There’s something distinctly American about praying at public events – graduations, football games and such like. Having witnessed too many of these prayers to count, I can’t say there is much religious or spiritual about them, but by golly, we Americans can be sure that – unlike the Brits or the Swedes or the Japanese – whenever we assemble, we’re going to be knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.

That goes for our governmental meetings as well. Both houses of Congress open each day’s session with prayer. At least 82 of the 99 houses of the states’ legislatures do the same, with virtually all allowing for prayer on some occasion, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And in the South and Midwest particularly, it is hard to find a city council, county commission or school board that doesn’t have a local pastor on hand to invoke the Almighty’s blessings on the proceedings.

Thanks to a recent ruling from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the City of Lakeland will continue to be one of them. (See a news article here.) The court ruled in the city’s favor in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by Atheists of Florida Inc., challenging the City Commission’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer, contending that it was a de facto endorsement of a particular religion, Christianity. The lawsuit was the culmination of almost two years of complaints and protests on the part of the atheist group.

Full disclosure here: I covered this story for The Ledger of Lakeland from the time Atheists of Florida began its protests until 2011.

The city’s main antagonist is a former lawyer from Pennsylvania named EllenBeth Wachs. Until a recent falling-out with Atheists of Florida, Wachs manned a lonely outpost as director of the Lakeland chapter of the small Tampa-based organization. With occasional support from one or two fellow atheists, Wachs would show up at the commission meetings, remain seated during the prayers instead of standing as requested, complain about the prayers during the public comments period, skip over the “under God” phrase when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and engage in other mildly disruptive acts. Finally, her group filed the lawsuit.

The commission’s practice had been to invite on a rotating basis pastors from the city and its immediate environs to offer an invocation. Wachs’ lawsuit complained that the invocations inflicted religion on those like her who have no beliefs and that the prayers offered were sectarian – they were invariably Christian. The lawsuit had no chance on the first point, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that prayers are allowed at legislative meetings provided they do not have a sectarian purpose and efforts are made to ensure all faiths are represented.

The lawsuit’s second point was true, since out of all the city’s houses of worship, only three are non-Christian – one synagogue, one mosque and one Hindu temple, and the mosque and the temple have no installed clergy. In other words, the prayers were sectarian, but they reflected the religious nature of the city. Still, the city altered its policy slightly to ensure it complied with Marsh, and the lawsuit was thrown out at the District and Circuit levels.

Wachs may be a gadfly, but she paid a price in the form of unwarranted harassment. She got the usual complement of hate mail, but then Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who had clashed with Wachs on another matter, had Wachs arrested on charges – later dropped – of practicing law without a license simply because Wachs used “Esq.” after her name on a petition. It was a petty, all-too-predictable abuse of authority from the establishment of a traditional county like Polk.

My view is that these prayers are pretty harmless from a civic point of view, which is exactly why they’re problematic from a religious point of view. These prayers are invariably bland, homogenized pabulum intended to reassure the status quo rather than hold it up to the all-revealing light of God. Any prayer that really tapped into the nature of God would clear out a council chamber in seconds.

I recall one pastor saying that if he were ever asked to pray at a football game, it would be the last time because he would say something like, “Lord, forgive us for trivializing the act of prayer in this way.”

To which I say, Amen.


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Abuses Shielded by Religion

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A harrowing recent series in the Tampa Bay Times detailed how for 30 years a handful of homes for troubled youth have used a misguided exemption in Florida law to get away with all manner of abuses by using religion as a shield.

These homes have gone unregulated because of a 1984 provision that removes religious homes from state oversight and places them under what is essentially a self-regulatory body whose oversight is, to say the least, lax.

Among the abuses committed by these homes were beatings, extended isolation, shackling and sexual crimes as well. The homes have almost completely gotten away with it until now, and fortunately the Times series has forced the state to start an investigation.

The series did not give the history behind the 1984 exemption, only that it was passed due to the efforts of a handful of pastors – presumably of a fundamentalist Christian persuasion – and a powerful state legislator. Reading between the lines, my guess is that this exemption and the mess it created has to do with corporal punishment, which was beginning to be forbidden in schools and state-supervised homes about that time.

The behavioral sciences have since the 1960s discouraged corporal punishment on the grounds that it does more harm than good, and this defines a clash of values. The issue is not just about spanking. Fundamentalists, and sometimes their more moderate cousins, evangelicals, distrust the philosophy that would forbid corporal punishment.

It’s true that psychology and sociology sometimes have far-out ideas, but for conservative Protestants the distrust lies in their assumptions about the nature of human beings. The behavioral sciences tend to assume that human nature is naturally disposed toward improvement. The right techniques that lead to greater self-awareness will result in better mental health, more happiness, etc.

Protestantism traditionally has taken a more skeptical view. Protestant theology has asserted that human nature is naturally sinful and incapable of improvement on its own and that the only remedy for this is reliance upon the grace of God. Only by obedience to the will and ways of God is a human being able to find joy and ultimately salvation.

Regrettably, this theology sometimes has been twisted and exaggerated to produce a harsh, unyielding form of disciplining children that has little to do with the Bible from which it is supposedly drawn. It is overlaid with secular conservative values – independence, traditional views of gender roles, admiration for physical courage and so on.

So when psychologists say that spanking is bad for a child, it goes against the grain. It’s one more bit of evidence to fundamentalists that  the behavioral sciences embrace views that are contrary to the word of God.

In this case, they wielded political muscle to isolate themselves from  obeying the laws of the state, laws that were put in place to protect children from the excesses that some of these misguided people thought were necessary to uphold their values.

To be fair, not all evangelicals hold these views, as the Times’ Alexandra Zayas points out in one of her stories. And even officials at Southern Baptist Children’s agencies were against the exemption at the time it was proposed because of the potential for abuse.

It goes without saying that this exemption was a bad idea from the beginning. When the welfare of children is at stake, even well-intentioned people cannot be given a blank check.

Of course, if the people running these homes had paid closer attention to the teachings of Jesus, including the Golden Rule – “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” – there might not have been any abuses in the first place.

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Public Money for Religious Schools? No.

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Several ill-advised proposals to amend the state constitution are on the ballot next week, and one of them would do away with Florida’s so-called Blaine Amendment that forbids state money from being used for “sectarian” purposes.

“Sectarian” refers among other things to religious matters, and this proposal, Amendment 8, taps into a complicated history.

In the late 1800s, Catholic immigrants protested the practices in public schools, which reflected the prevailing Protestant ethos of the country and frequently included prayers and exhortations that had an unabashed Protestant character.

So Catholics started their own school systems, and they complained that because the alternative was forcing their children to endure Protestant indoctrination paid for by tax dollars, Catholics were entitled to public money to pay for schools that supported their own faith.

In 1875, James G. Blaine, Speaker of the U.S. House, proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have made it clear that no public money should ever be given to religious or religiously sponsored organizations. Blaine was not anti-Catholic himself, but there was strong sentiment against public funds going to Catholic schools.

Even though the amendment failed, states were quick to pick up the effort, and eventually 37 state constitutions, including Florida’s, had Blaine Amendments.

Supporters of Amendment 8 have tried to spin it different ways: that it eliminates a vestige of bigotry against Catholics; that because religious organizations cannot bid for state money they are being treated unfairly, and so on. They have also tried to say it has nothing to do with funding private religious education through vouchers, which is very hard to believe.

Times have changed, and today it is evangelicals complaining about their kids being indoctrinated with secular ideologies in public school. They’ve teamed up with Catholics, whose position has never changed, and they are salivating at the prospect of tapping state coffers to pay for students’ tuition at religious schools.

After all, private education is expensive and a voucher for the per-pupil amount the local public school would get makes St. Perpetua Catholic School or Triumph Christian Academy a lot more attractive to the parents of prospective students.

In theory, the U.S. Constitution forbids this under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that vouchers may be permissible under some circumstances. The ironclad language of the Blaine Amendment is standing in the way of Florida private school administrators, and Amendment 8 is their weapon to smash that barrier.

Contrary to the convictions of militant atheists and the ACLU, there are certain circumstances in which a partnership between the state and religious institutions is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. Where a denominational organization provides social services, they should be able to do so under contract with a modicum of guidelines about proselytizing.

But education is a very different kettle of fish. Religious groups have no rights to public money when it comes to funding private schools, precisely because religious indoctrination is part and parcel of the mission of those schools, and taxpayers should not have to pay for that.

Religious groups can complain all they want that they are being discriminated against, but one U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, there is a long legal and cultural tradition against mingling public monies with private religious education. What they call discrimination is in fact only being compelled to obey that tradition.

Some religious organizations that might otherwise legitimately be able to contract with the state are shut out under the Blaine Amendment, and that’s too bad. But if that’s the price to pay to keep religious schools’ hands out of the state till, so be it.

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Birth Control is the Bogeyman

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

So it is about contraception, after all.

In fighting insurance coverage for contraceptives under the new healthcare law, Catholic bishops and some Republican politicians repeatedly said they objected to a government mandate because it infringed on religious liberty.

A proposed federal rule to require religiously affiliated nonprofits to provide contraceptive coverage violates the Catholic belief that contraception is immoral, the bishops protested.  Although use of contraceptives is almost universal, even among Catholics, the bishops appealed to the public on the grounds the rule was about violating religious freedom, not contraception.

“When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead,” Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

It worked. Even moderate Democrats and liberal Catholics urged Obama to accommodate the bishops’ objections.

And so last week, the Obama Administration announced the rule would be changed. While religious nonprofits must still provide health insurance, coverage of contraceptives would be offered only to employees who ask for it. However, the charities would not have to pay for it. Instead, insurance companies would pick up the tab since contraceptives are cheap, while pregnancy is expensive.

So the bishops’ concerns about religious freedom were placated, right? Guess again.

In an internal memo from five senior bishops, and later in a statement issued by the U.S. Conference, they still objected. A chief complaint is the government’s distinction between the church as a religious organization, which is exempt from the rule, and the church’s charities, which employ non-Catholic workers and serve the public.

The bishops argue, correctly, that the church’s charities are extensions of itself, undertaken out of religious convictions, so there should be no distinction. But now that the church’s charities are also exempt from the rule, why continue the fight?

The answer is that the rule might raise religious liberty issues for others, too. “Our concern remains strong that the government is creating its own definitions of who is ‘religious enough’ for full protection,” the bishops wrote.

And so was drawn a new battle line: business owners who are devout Catholics and object to the rule would not be exempt from it. “Secular employers must provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion inducing drugs,” they wrote with disapproval.

In other words, it’s no longer about the church. Religious liberty is window dressing for the bishops’ real objection, birth control.

It’s worth noting that Catholic charities do a lot of good for the public, and they do so out of sincere Christian faith. It’s also true that some on the left have nothing but contempt for the Catholic Church and would just as soon force-feed birth-control pills to Catholic schoolgirls.

That said, the Obama administration has addressed the most important religious liberty concerns about contraception coverage.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that 55 percent of Americans, and 52 percent of Catholics, supported the federal rule, even before it was softened. Bishops who insist the accommodation does not satisfy all their objections will be seen as the worst kind of religious extremists and play into the hands of those eager to portray them that way.

Republicans who used the bishops’ complaints for their own partisan purposes may continue to rail about Obama’s “war on religious liberty,” but it’s unlikely we will see them standing beside the bishops as they complain about contraception.

Because contraception is what this fight is now about.

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Middle Ground in War Over Birth Control

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The Obama Administration is said to be waging a “war on religious liberty.” To call it war is hyperbole, but there is conflict over a new federal ruling that has antagonized Catholic leaders. One bishop said the administration is telling the church, “To hell with you.”

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that beginning in August employers who provide employee health insurance — including religious organizations — must cover contraceptive services.

Only one major denomination considers contraception immoral, and that’s the Catholic Church. The church itself is exempt from the HHS rule, but its charities, including Catholic schools and hospitals that serve the general public, would be forced to comply. The network of charities is extensive and highly symbolic given its attachment to the nation’s largest denomination.

Suppose a Catholic hospital employs Liz, a Jewish nurse, for example. If she worked for a secular hospital, she would receive insurance coverage for contraceptives. For others to deny her coverage would be discriminatory, says HHS. But in the Catholic view, contraception is wrong, period, and the church should not be compelled to provide it.

“We’re being told by the U.S. government that unless we only serve a very narrow group of people that are strictly Catholic, we have to comply with something that we feel is evil,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told the Miami Herald this week. “What do I have to do then -– violate my conscience or get out of the insurance business?”

Under the new healthcare law, employers must provide insurance coverage to their employees, and Catholic organizations would face a fine if they dropped their employee insurance plans.

U.S. Sen Marco Rubio of Florida weighs in on the side of the bishops. Last week, he sponsored legislation to repeal the part of the law that requires coverage of contraceptive services.

Catholics have vowed political repercussions if the rule is fully implemented, and Republicans have been stoking the fires, hoping for some election-year fallout.

But according to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of Catholic women practice some form of contraception. It’s unlikely that independent Catholic voters already defying church teaching will be swayed by the HHS ruling. And there’s not going to be a lot of outrage in the general public that Catholic bishops are somehow being denied religious freedom over a mandate to cover birth control.

The government’s job is to protect the interests of all citizens, including non-Catholics, and the ruling speaks up for our hypothetical nurse, Liz.

But the Catholic Church is the oldest Christian faith on the planet, and it did not suddenly decide last month it has objections to contraception. Whether you agree with their convictions – and I do not – it should at least be recognized that this is a long-established moral doctrine, not adopted for convenience.

I am usually uneasy about laws that require people to act against their beliefs. The Obama administration has an obligation to take into account the religious scruples of a church that offers important services to Americans. It should be able to bend the rule a bit. One proposed solution would essentially allow employees to purchase at their own expense an optional rider that would cover contraceptive services.

In fact, Catholic universities and hospitals in many states already offer insurance plans to employees that cover contraceptive services. Some even cover abortion. Presumably employees are paying for these provisions out of their own pockets. This renders some of the apocalyptic rhetoric from Catholic leaders and their allies about the HHS rule rather disingenuous.

It is incumbent on the bishops to recognize diversity of opinions and offer some suggestions about what to do for Liz under the new law. If all they can say to her is “Tough luck,” then they are holding her hostage to their consciences.

This conflict is resolvable, but only by good will on both sides.

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