Separation of Church and State

by Ricardo Jarmillo

On September 29th, the Roosevelt Institute gathered to discuss policies surrounding religious liberty in the United States. The separation of church and state has been a notoriously difficult concept to translate into policy. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”–but what does that really mean? To answer that question, co-directors of the Equal Justice Center, Jay Rappaport and Rachel Knowles, led a discussion that explored the limits of religious liberty laws and deliberated over possible policies regarding the regulation of religious activities and institutions.

Different countries regulate religious expression and religious groups in a variety of ways. In France, for example, the French parliament voted to ban the wearing of veils that cover the face in public spaces as well as all “ostensibly” religious signs in schools. Many expressed discontent over these laws, arguing that they disproportionately targeted Muslims and other religious minority groups. In the United States, however, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) mandate that the government cannot violate an individual’s religious expression unless it has a compelling government interest and is acting in the least intrusive manner possible. Furthermore, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts prevent an individual from losing employment based on personal religious expression. Originally passed by the Clinton Administration in the 90s, the RFRAs were intended to protect religious minorities, particularly Native American groups, from religious discrimination.

Although the RFRAs were intended for religious minorities, nowadays many Christian groups invoke the RFRAs to avoid compliance with federal regulations. The Supreme Court has ruled on several conflicts between government policy and religious expression. In Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, the Supreme Court ruled that “closely held” corporations can be exempt from a law that they object to on a religious basis. In this case, Hobby Lobby was protesting the provision in the Affordable Care Act that would have required them to include coverage of contraception as part of their health care plans. However, more recently, the Supreme Court has ruled that homosexuals in the United States are legally entitled to marriage. Kim Davis, a county clerk from Kentucky, was briefly jailed for refusing to sign the marriage licenses of same-sex couples, claiming that her religious beliefs were being violated. These conflicting results from the clashes between laws and religious liberty only further contribute to the blurry division between the two.

In the discussion, members questioned the tax-exempt status that is held by churches and other religious groups. Churches can file 501c3 forms to avoid taxation and to receive tax-deductible donations so long as they are “religious, educational, scientific,…or charitable.” While churches cannot attempt to influence legislation or participate in political campaigns under current regulations, many members expressed skepticism that churches are currently adhering to such regulations. Members also questioned the strength and toughness of these regulations given that in 1993, the IRS awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. The Church of Scientology is accused of allegedly physically and mentally harming its members and holds millions of dollars’ worth of luxury real estate assets all across the world. Moreover, it is estimated that approximately $71 billion worth of taxes is being lost by the amount of churches that are tax-exempt.

Members debated whether or not churches should be tax-exempt and if there should be laws that allow for religious exemptions in policy. On the question of the tax-exempt status of churches, many members concurred that there should be some form of tax on churches, particularly on churches that are very wealthy and hold a lot of valuable real estate assets. A policy that would cap the amount of real estate assets that a church can own was proposed. Other members proposed a regressive income tax on churches, trying to find a balance between poor, rural churches that depend on their tax-exempt status to stay open and rich churches that could afford to pay more. On whether laws should allow for religious exemptions, it seemed as if the group was somewhat more divided. Many referenced the bakery in Indiana that refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Some claimed that the bakery’s refusal to bake the cake was an unacceptable form of discrimination and that businesses exist solely for profit, not for the advancement of a particular moral agenda. Others, however, referenced the Muslim flight attendant who was fired for refusing to serve alcohol, claiming an overbearing drive for secularism unfairly affects religious minorities, many of whom already suffer from other forms of discrimination. Ultimately, however, it seems as if the debate about the line between religious liberty and the advancement of public policy will continue to hang over future policymaking.