Oh, where to begin with this topic.
As some of you may remember, my 50th post touched on the issue of “Separation of Church and State.” In that article I concluded that the phrase is correct in describing what the Founding Fathers originally regarding the relationship between religion and politics. It was not meant to be the basis for the elimination of all things religious in America’s public square. Nor was it to justify religious ceremonies and views to be published and promoted by the state.
However, there are times when this line of reasoning does not provide a clear and easy answer like the current controversy in Houston, Texas. If you’re not familiar with what’s happening, here’s a quick summary: Mayor Annise Parker of Houston has recently announced that she is a lesbian and helped push through the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). HERO is supposed to protect the rights of gays, lesbians, transgenders, and bisexuals in the workplace and in society. Many citizens found the ordinance, particularly the right for people to use any gender bathroom they wish, to be unacceptable and signed a petition for citizens to decide if the ordinance should be implemented when they vote this November. The mayor’s office dismissed the petition. A repeal petition was made and was dismissed again on the grounds that most of the signatures were faked. A lawsuit, backed by mostly Christians, was the response. Pro bono lawyers for the mayor’s office then moved for sermons from five Houston pastors to be subpoenaed because meetings for the repeal petition were hosted in the pastors’ churches and it is suspected that the pastors were leaders of the movement. (See the Washington Post for more details.)
The question is whether or not the subpoenas violate the 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion. The mayor’s office argues that because the pastors allowed political groups to hold their meetings in their churches and actively led those groups the pastors forfeit their right to freedom of religion. However according to Christiannews.net, these pastors were not party to the law-suit while those who were did not receive subpoenas. The subpoenas have been revised to only include speeches mentioning the repeal petition. However, there is a question of why these speeches are needed when the pastors and their words are not on trial but the reasoning the mayor used to reject the previous petitions.
There’s also a law suit in Idaho where an ordained couple refuse to abide by a city ordinance to perform same sex wedding ceremonies. Part of the reasoning from city officials is that the couple’s chapel is a for-profit business that is advertised to the general public. Therefore, they cannot be exempt on religious grounds. The couple, both pastors, counter that because they are clergy and hold certain religious views, they should be not coerced or fined for not offering wedding services to LGBT couples. For more details on this story, check this Reuters article.
There are more similar stories and they all have the same question, “What do we do when faith and politics collide?”
It would be great that there was a one-size-fits-all answer, but I don’t believe there is. The situation in Texas is frightening because it is censoring all religious leaders from ever discussing cultural or political trends in a negative light. That is not how the 1st Amendment is written nor is it how it should be applied. Granted, I don’t want to hear campaign propaganda from the pulpit. I do, however, want to know what the Christian response to behaviors and ideas like gay marriage, abortion, illegal immigration, war, welfare, etc. And if a pastor or priest becomes too political, then that is for the congregants or the church hierarchy to decide and not the government.
Of course can we apply this same line of reasoning to the couple in Idaho? From what I can tell, the two do not host weekly worship services in their chapel. What sermons they do offer are just parts of their product packages for newly weds. To me that is not what clergy do and therefore they are not really pastors despite their ordination. However, I’m not a member of their denomination which may have a much broader definition of what is means to be a pastor. In that case it is a religious issue to be worked out and determined by that denomination, not the government. But that would mean the law must wait on a religious institution for it to come into affect which would really blur the line between church and state.
Again I don’t think there is a simple, easy answer to this. We’re living in a society that is rapidly trying to be more open and tolerant of other views and lifestyles. Unfortunately by mandating this need for tolerance through the legal system, we’ve created a series of problems regarding freedom of thought, speech, and conscience or lack thereof. And given the sensitivity of the issues involved, it is unlikely that we’ll find any satisfactory answers soon.