Over the Hill

On religion, our Constitution gets it right

American churches are generally exempt from federal, state and local taxes. But the federal government can cancel the exemptions of any church that campaigns for or against candidates running for public office. It’s the law.

Last Sunday’s Tribune had a story that said 1,600 religious leaders recently staged a nationwide protest against that law. Three churches from this county participated. The churches may feel the law restricts their freedom of speech, but it strikes me as fair.

A University of Tampa professor estimated this year that religious exemptions across America cost government $71 billion per year. That’s money the churches get to keep while we taxpayers bear the entire burden of supporting our governments. So, if churches campaign for candidates, they’re doing it with money that comes indirectly from us taxpayers, who may prefer other candidates. That’s unfair.

The protest was organized by a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom, which says it wants to rescue America from “radical anti-Christian groups” and discredit “the myth of the so-called separation of church and state.”

I guess they think separating churches from the state hinders religious freedom. I believe it helps it. The men who wrote our Constitution in 1787 weren’t infallible, but they got religion right. They hardly mentioned it. They let it be free.

Article 6 of the Constitution basically says anyone can hold office regardless of his religious beliefs. The only other mention of religion was in the first sentence of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That was written in a time when in Massachusetts only Christians could vote, including Catholics if they renounced papal authority. And New York’s constitution banned Catholics from holding office.

Also some states, such as Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official churches they financially supported. Knowing that helps us understand what the First Amendment means by “establishment of religion.” My dictionary defines an established church as “a church recognized by law as the official church of a nation or state and supported by civil authority.”

Our Constitution’s writers wanted none of that. They were probably influenced by earlier tragedies like the hanging, in Puritan-dominated Boston, of four Quakers for continuing to profess their beliefs. Our Constitution makers sought to avoid the religious strife we still see today in Asia and North Africa.