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Kyle Eller: Church-state separationists are inconsistent

This Lent I'm trying to be more charitable and forgiving, since I require those gifts from God in great quantities myself. So I'll start with a mea culpa. Church-state issues are complicated, at anything beyond the sloganeering stage, and for a l...

This Lent I'm trying to be more charitable and forgiving, since I require those gifts from God in great quantities myself. So I'll start with a mea culpa. Church-state issues are complicated, at anything beyond the sloganeering stage, and for a long period in my life, I was flat wrong about some of them.

Being wrong, even seriously so, doesn't necessarily mean ill will. It's quite easy to be wrong about this these days, when a few secular theocrats, who truly want to install atheism as the state religion, seem to have a disproportionate influence in universities and in public schools, where they can most (dis)form public opinion.

So, for instance, even though the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union is flat wrong about the Ten Commandments monument in Duluth, not everyone who agrees with them does so with evil intent. I might have agreed with them myself a couple of years ago.

They are wrong. A monument is not a law. The city hall lawn is not Congress. The presence of the monument does not establish any particular religion. Herb Bergson, along with picking a new planning director, is not tasked with appointing a bishop for the Church of Duluth just because the monument is there.

But I don't doubt that some who are wrong mean well.

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Still, other recent events suggest it's Christians, not atheists, who might worry about their civil liberties. Particularly disturbing is the Catholic Charities case in California, in which the state's supreme court recently ruled that the religious charitable organization, serving the poor as a way to live the Gospel, has to provide contraceptive coverage, in violation of its beliefs, in its employee health package.

The ACLU has called this case a "great victory" -- that is, the American Civil Liberties Union has declared a blatant violation of civil liberties to be victory.

Attacks on conscience clauses for medical staff who refuse to participate in abortions are underway. Christian student groups are being harrassed, censored and defunded by administrations on college campuses. Students studying religion are, in some places, denied access to government financial aid.

I could go on. On the other hand, separationists have to strain so hard to find evidence of maltreatment that some describe even responding to their lawsuits as picking a fight. Use the difficult and democratic amendment process to oppose an activist court rewriting the constitution by fiat and you are said to be rekindling the culture wars. That's a nice deal -- like kicking somebody in the teeth and then accusing him of violence when he tries to block your next punch.

But to get past the same old arguments, let me try a simple, direct question: If this strict separation of church and state is such a sound principle, why don't its adherents apply it more consistently?

As a principle, if it applies to some attempts by churches to influence government officials and policy, it must apply to all of them. As a principle, if it opposes any politician's relying on faith to guide or to advocate for his positions, it must oppose all politicians' doing so.

But it isn't working that way.

Local churches have, in the last year or so, lobbied government directly on gun legislation and on state budget priorities.

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State Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, last year chastised his legislative colleagues about the budget on the grounds of faith. Michigan's Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm did the same in her state more recently, right around the same time Archbishop Raymond Burke's stand on abortion was drawing fire. Howard Dean, then the early frontrunner in his bid for president, offered theological arguments in favor of gay "marriage." Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota has done the same.

All this happened with nary a public peep from separationists.

Many separationists profess concern over George Bush's public expressions of faith -- they should read Lincoln's. Yet these same people, with a handful of minor exceptions, seem unconcerned by Democratic contenders campaigning on their own faiths, as Dean did attempting to woo the South. Dems, like Republicans, troll for votes in churches. One candidate is a minister.

Where are the letters, editorials, lawsuits?

The Commandments? That's problematic too. Many of the same folks who want to deck the Decalogue have no problem imposing Planned Parenthood's commandments of sexual morality on Christian children in public schools.

If Bush's faith bothers you, so must the Rev. Al Sharpton's. If Archbishop Burke troubles you, so must the church down the street harping on the state budget.

You can't say you don't want religion and politics to mix and then only apply it when someone says something you dislike.

The alternate view makes more sense, and that is to see that public religion is a public good. Churches have a right to speak out, even when they are wrong. They have a right to follow their own principles in hiring and offering benefits. Citizens, clergy, religious organizations and even politicians have a right to practice their faith, or lack thereof, in public and private, without government interference. Even when they are wrong.

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That's what those forgotten First Amendment words defending the free exercise of religion mean.

Kyle Eller is the features editor of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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