Sunday, February 15, 2009

How About A Little Separation Of Church And State?

Christian conservatives and the ACLU get along almost as famously as the Hatfields and McCoys. However, it appears the two may have to grit their teeth and work together to oppose a legislative bill here in Iowa.

The religion clause of the First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[...]." The ACLU focuses on the first part of the clause, the religious right focuses on the second part. (Libertarians like to focus on both parts.)

The ACLU often defends the First Amendment's supposed "wall of separation" between church and state. The Christian right likes to point out that the First Amendment mentions no such wall and concludes that the ACLU is merely trying to keep Christians from participating fully in the public realm. Now however, Christians may be willing to step into a breach in that wall of separation with the ACLU to fight House File 179.

HF 179, “An Act including members of the clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse, and making penalties applicable,” was introduced into the Iowa legislature by a Republican and a Democrat. The sponsors are supposedly an evangelical Christian and a Baptist, respectively. The bill would require members of the clergy to be mandatory reporters of child abuse, just like doctors, teachers and cops are now. There is an exception for information obtained during religious confession.

Nobody wants children in Iowa to be abused, so what can the problem be with this proposed law? The ACLU of Iowa lists several.

For one, ACLU-IA explains, the bill makes an exception for "penitential communication", which means "confession." Since the Catholic Church is the only one that has formal rules about seeking penitence through a clergy member, religious counseling in other religions would be open game. (This may be why the Catholic Conference is the only religious group to have endorsed the legislation so far.)

Since Iowa is always shorthanded on psychiatrists and family counselors, the minister is often a small town’s first responder for family crises. Do we really want to discourage people from talking to their minister for fear of immediate police involvement?

Another problem is, what is “a member of the clergy?” The bill defines it as “a person authorized by ordination, licensing, or other form of entitlement of the religious group or sect with which the person is affiliated to provide pastoral care and counseling to the group, sect, or others.” Huh?

Some churches have more formal training and accreditation procedures for their clergy than do others. In some churches all members are considered “ministers.” In the end, the state would have to issue some kind of standards on who is and who is not clergy, if the law is to be enforceable. See the wall crumbling?

All in all, the bill would open up a huge can of First Amendment worms regardless of what clause your group likes to focus on. Let’s hope that these two unlikely allies, conservative Christians and the ACLU, like Churchill and Stalin, can crush the common threat. Then they can get back to clobbering each other.

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