Posts tagged with: church and state

A week or so ago I passed along a story about the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of New York’s interpretation of recent legislation to make it illegal for those filing for bankruptcy to tithe, except under very specific circumstances (here’s a good follow-up story).

Well, yesterday Religion Clause (which is, by the way, an excellent blog well worthy of bookmarking), noted that while the aforementioned case had received a great deal of attention, “an equally important case on the issue decided several weeks ago by the Second circuit seems to have gone largely unnoticed.”

In a case decided in late July,

the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that treating some contributions to churches as fraudulent conveyances in bankruptcy does not violate the Free Exercise of Establishment clauses. It went on to interpret various provisions of the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act of 1998. It held that the statute’s shield for charitable donations of up to 15% of a debtor’s annual income applies to aggregate annual transfers, not to individual donations. The court held that in this case, the Church had waived its claim that it should be able to retain amounts donated to it under the 15% limit. Finally it held that on remand the church could raise the statutory defense that donations in excess of 15% “were consistent with the practices of the debtor in making charitable contributions.

Check out Religion Clause for the case details and relevant links.

Religion Clause, which is “devoted to legal and political developments in free exercise of religion and separation of church and state,” is run by Howard M. Friedman, Distinguished University Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Toledo College of Law.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 3, 2006

This story makes me think of an old joke. Stafford, TX has a population of 19,227 people and 51 churches. The city council is making noise about preventing any more churches from opening up because, as tax-exempt organizations, they are threatening the viability of the local government.

My initial reaction: In one sense this is nothing new. Ever since the days of the Holy Roman Empire, church estates have been free from the taxes of civil government, and as monastic and ecclesiastical property holdings grew larger, the civil magistrate grew more and more covetous…after all, there is no tax exemption from the tithe.

I do, by the way, support the idea that the church should be free from paying taxes to the civil government, and not simply because the government deems churches to be of positive social value. The Church and the State are different institutions with different orders of authority. You might say that the State has no authority or right to tax the Church.

And this might even true even if churches want to make political statements (although I have my own view about the prudence of doing so). In this sense, churches perhaps aren’t like other nonprofits, and so perhaps these IRS warnings are based on a misplaced view of the authority civil government.

But I digress. Living in West Michigan, which I believe has to have one of the largest proportions of church space per capita in the country, this hits home. You’ve probably all heard it in some form or another:

A man was shipwrecked and he was able to find his way to an island. He lived there alone for 10 years.

Finally a ship came to his rescue. His rescuers saw three huts that he had constructed and they were puzzled by that. They asked him if he were alone on the island and he answered that he was.

Then, “What was this hut used for?” they asked.

“I live there.” he replied.

“What was the second hut used for?” they asked.

“Oh, that’s where I go to church.” was his answer.

“And the third?” they queried.

“Hmmph! That’s where I used to go to church.”

HT: WorldMagBlog

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

I’ve commented previously on Randall Balmer’s new book. The online article this month from First Things is Ross Douthat’s excellent review of a raft of books (including Balmer’s) that take up similar themes. In a nutshell, there is currently a lot of hyperventilating about the danger of an unholy alliance between church and state in the United States, which, to most religious folks probably seems to read the trends 180 degress wrong.

Douthat doesn’t even include Damon Linker’s book (an expansion of a New Republic article about which I posted here), which dubs First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus a theocon—and which Neuhaus in the latest issue characterizes as “what is known in the publishing business as an ‘attack book.'”

As I’ve noted before, concern about the relationship between church and state is legitimate, and it is dangerous to both sides when religious institutions snuggle too comfortably with government. Unfortunately, most of the accusations of theocracy currently being tossed about in the public square appear to consist more of grandstanding than valuable criticism.

Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett wrote an outstanding piece for USA Today. He argues convincingly that the large-scale and widespread withdrawal of Catholic institutions from many of the nation’s cities has ramifications that extend beyond the interests of Catholics alone.

He notes, too, that government has a role to play in facilitating the flourishing of religious institutions such as Catholic churches and hospitals—mainly by honoring a properly understood separation of church and state:

Is there anything the government and the public can do to protect and invest in our “social capital?” Perhaps. Our Constitution, of course, does not permit the government to run, sponsor or fund churches. That said, legislators and citizens should take care not to add needlessly to their regulatory and other burdens by requiring Catholic hospitals to provide “emergency contraception,” or authorizing lawsuits against religious schools relating to the hiring and firing of teachers and ministers, or by misusing zoning and land-use laws. And urban Catholic schools’ many contributions to the public good provide yet another, entirely secular, reason to embrace school-choice programs.

HT: Domenico Bettinelli at

BRYN MAWR, July 12, 2006 – Yesterday I outlined in brief a biblical case for the legitimate and even divine institution of civil government. Having established that the State is a valid social institution, the next step in what is broadly called social ethics is to outline the scope of the State’s authority and its relations to other social institutions.

A valuable place to start might be in defining what the role of the State ought to be, rather than simply cataloguing the specific tasks of the State one by one, starting with the punishment of the wrongdoer, and so on (in this sort of endeavor, I think Aquinas’ maxim regarding when to make law is invaluable). Gaudium et spes gives a valuable starting point for a discussion of the common good: “The sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Leo XIII says that “Civil society exists for the common good.”

In some sense, too, the State exists for the common good, although its role is clearly defined and sharply delimited: to ensure some of the necessary preconditions for the realization of the common good.

Recall what Lord Acton writes of liberty, the highest political end, that it is necessary “for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” These highest objects of civil society could be summed up in the concept of the common good. Thus Acton writes that beyond the core and proper center of the scope of governmental authority, the State “can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.”

In discussing the relationship between the Church and State, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the State’s responsibility with regard to the first table of the Decalogue in a similar way. He argues that the State effectively meets its responsibility in promoting and protecting the Church by carving out space for the existence of the Church, ensuring its ability to exist and vigorously thrive in freedom.

In our American context, I think we can understand the establishment clause of the First Amendment to effectively accomplish this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Bill of Rights therefore protects and even promotes the right of the Church to exist

Simply put: the government exists to promote and protect liberty, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of human virtue and flourishing, also called the common good.

Blog author: jarmstrong
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The spirit of nationalism is a positive thing in my view. Most people inherently love their country. Christians should not be alarmed by this very normal human emotion. I shared in it by observing the Fourth of July parade in my community. As the band played and the fire trucks blared their sirens I found myself feeling a sense of pride about this community and my country. I watched the politicians go by, seeking recognition and votes, and thought to myself, “Elections never seem to end here.” The best word to describe my emotion was “pride” I think. I am sincerely proud to be an American.

But as with any other emotion I felt some other reactions as I thought further about our country at this time. I believe nationalism is a good thing but I am deeply concerned about the growing “Christian” nationalism on the far right. This spirit is fed by many springs, including popular preachers, best-selling books and mean-spirited talk shows. My concern about this kind of nationalism is not without reason. When I hear conservative Christians talk about the future they envision for America I find myself becoming more and more distant from their vision of nationalism. I think one reason I have these fears is rooted in my racist Southern background. The fears I heard played up in my childhood, often by white conservative Christians, are the same type of fears I hear played up by growing bands of fringe Christians who appeal to the instinctive fear that this country is so anti-God that it is in need of a huge social upheaval that will radically remake everything from our judiciary to our schools.

What I realized, especially as I watched the parade and chatted with my multi-racial neighbors, was how wonderful it is to live in this country where people of all races and backgrounds can find a home in what still is “the land of the free.” I want real Christian influence in this culture but I do not want a “Christian nation.” I do not believe such a nation has ever existed and every attempt to create one will lead to extremes that ultimately harm the real work of the gospel and Christian mission in our society.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Joe Knippenberg, who blogs at No Left Turns, provides a thoughtful and engaging analysis of the particulars of the recent Iowa court decision finding against InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an outreach of Prison Fellowship Ministries. In “Penitents in the Penitentiary?,” at The American Enterprise Online, Knippenberg writes, “Despite my general support for the faith-based initiative, and for religious efforts to put the penitence back in penitentiaries, I’m inclined for the most part to agree with Judge Pratt. In this particular case, where the state and Prison Fellowship self-consciously tested the outer bounds of current church-state jurisprudence, they went too far.”

Reaction from PFM’s president Mark Earley is available here and at the special IFI verdict page. I have written before in support of work of PFM, and this decision does nothing to change my mind on that score.

It does expose the real complexities involved with taking for Christian ministries, even those that have a strong social service component. As Knippenberg writes, InnerChange staff ran up against the difficulties of abiding by what I consider to be the increasingly rigid and invalid separation of secular and sacred elements: “Where so much of the program is devoted to inculcating a Christian worldview, it is difficult, if not impossible, to precisely delineate what portion of a staffer’s time, or what fraction of a piece of equipment’s value is devoted to secular, as opposed to religious, purposes.”

I’ve written more about the entanglements and effects of the faith-based initiative in the case of the Silver Ring Thing, and there’s conversation between myself and Knippenberg on this linked here, here and here.