How Separate are Church and State?

The municipality where I live just had a vote on whether to impose a tax that will be used to improve drainage. The vote passed, and although the details of how it will be implemented are yet to be worked out, the tax apparently will go through. The idea is that the more land you have, the higher the tax, with the theory that more land equals more drainage problems.

Churches were not exempted from the tax, so this law apparently gives the right of the municipal governement to impose this tax on churches. Some people in the past have already complained that churches pay no property tax, and since large churches own a great deal of property, significant revenue sources are prevented from being paid to governments.

Regulations on churches are not new. Some places in the US have restricted churches with zoning laws, preventing them from building churches except in certain places. One community outside of Baltimore restricts churches to a “spiritual center,” a single building set aside for churches.  Further, churches all over the country are subject to building codes and the like.

But how far does the separation between church and state go? How much right does a government have to regulate a church? One church back in the 1970’s was operated by Lester Rolloff, who ran a home for troubled youth, and the state denied the church a license to operate the home because the church insisted on locking the worst of the youth in rooms, spanking, and other issues that the state regulations prohibited. After a lengthy court battle, the home was eventually shut down. Now we have this local law giving the government the right to tax churches.

The phrase “separation of church and state” was introduced into law by the US Supreme Court in a religious freedom case in the mid-1900’s, a full 150 years after the first amendment of the constitution used different language, saying that congress shall pass no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

So we are told, and case law now supports, we have separation of church and state. But it appears that it is a one-sided separation, for the state is gradually encroaching on the church, seeking less and less separation. If the state has the right to regulate the church, we do not have separation, but the state then has authority over the church. We cannot have separation and at the same time give the state the right to regulate. So it appears that we want separation for some things but not others; we want to keep churches from passing worship laws but still want to make money from the churches. It appears that we’d rather the churches not bother our conciences with such pesky things as morals and reminding us of the possibility of hell, but we’re fine with telling the churches what they have to pay and how they have to run their ministries. Future fights will be over what the churches can say and who they have to hire.

My friends, the writers of the first amendment were trying to prevent the US Congress from establishing a state church. We’ve now turned this into “a wall of separation between church and state.” Well, if we want separation, we’ll have to live with separation, and the government is restricted from regulating churches. Of course, these things are never absolute, for no one wants to allow churches to build shoddy buildings that could hurt people, so building codes are a good idea. But if we want separation of church and state, we have to give up taxing churches, telling them where they can build, and telling them how to run their ministries.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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