Excluding Religion from Public Life is Tricky

by Darryl Hart on December 16, 2012 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Protestant conservatives of the Religious Right variety may be surprised to know that the strongest arguments for undressing the public square (of religious garments) came from Protestants. Whenever Roman Catholics wanted public funds or support for parochial schools, from the 1830s to the 1950s Protestants invariably responded by insisting on the separation of church and state. In other words, Protestants generally crafted the arguments that Supreme Court justices would use eventually to exclude religion from public schools. If support for parochial schooling was an illegitimate establishment of religion, how could prayer and Bible reading in public schools be construed as anything but another instance of using public funds to support a particular religion in a public institution?

A similar dynamic is emerging as legislators in the United States look for ways to prevent the implementation of Sharia Law. Perhaps with the history of their own church in mind, a Roman Catholic public policy group in Michigan was astute to notice an important defect in a recently proposed piece of legislation:

The Michigan Catholic Conference, citing a potential impact on Catholic canon law, is speaking out against a bill in the Michigan House of Representatives that would prohibit the application of foreign law in Michigan.

The legislation, House Bill 4769, is primarily aimed at prohibiting Muslim Sharia law in the state, but Michigan Catholic Conference President and CEO Paul Long said the bill also could have an adverse effect on canon law, which is the juridical structure that facilitates life and governance in the Catholic Church.

Canon law governs aspects of Catholic life such as church structure and authority, doctrine, the appointment of pastors, the care of objects used in sacred worship, and rules regulating Catholic parishes and schools. In a news release, the MCC said canon law in many cases predates and is even the basis of some civil laws in the western world.

“Any measure that could have the impact of interfering with the internal life of the Catholic Church shall be viewed as an attack on religious liberty itself and must be opposed,” Long said. “It is the hope of the Michigan Catholic Conference that discussions pertaining to this legislation will foster a deeper awareness of and appreciation for religious liberty and the contributions religious communities make to the common good of society.”

In a replay of earlier culture wars, some evangelical Protestants have been hostile to a Muslim presence in the United States. But at least some Christians can see through religious differences to the consequences of legislation aimed at religion. Maybe if evangelicals regarded the Bible as a foreign book (which it is since none of its authors were American), they might see how restricting other religions ultimately restricts theirs.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Thomas McCullough December 17, 2012 at 7:43 am

I’m unclear about what this situation could mean. I could only imagine that Sharia law could only be used in the United States in a community that accepted its legitimacy and that any individual who chose to could refuse to accept any and all judgements and the community would not, legally could not enforce anything except something like shunning. I believe that is the only way Sharia could exist in the US. Is something more involved, something I’m not grasping?

avatar Flat Head December 17, 2012 at 10:16 am

The no-sharia law is almost certainly un-constitutional. It forbids such things as contracts arranging for Sharia mediation of family disputes–i.e. agreeing to go before your pastor to resolve disputes. Jews have the same kind of agreements and Catholics enter into contractual agreements all the time that involve canon law.

All of these contracts would basically become unenforceable under this law.

Contrary to the fear mongers, if such a contract is contrary to the public policy of the state in which the parties seek to enforce the agreement, the contract is unenforceable anyways. We don’t need laws that specifically target religious groups to make honor killings a crime — murder is already illegal.

Fortunately, the 10th Circuit has already placed Kansas’ law on hold pending review.

avatar Tom Van Dyke December 20, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Protestant conservatives of the Religious Right variety may be surprised to know that the strongest arguments for undressing the public square (of religious garments) came from Protestants. Whenever Roman Catholics wanted public funds or support for parochial schools, from the 1830s to the 1950s Protestants invariably responded by insisting on the separation of church and state.

If support for parochial schooling was an illegitimate establishment of religion, how could prayer and Bible reading in public schools be construed as anything but another instance of using public funds to support a particular religion in a public institution?

Or: The latter-day left has assumed the shameful role of intolerance and anti-pluralism of previous generations of Protestants [and "free thinkers"].

avatar John Haas December 20, 2012 at 9:37 pm

“and that any individual who chose to could refuse to accept any and all judgements”

So, the state would accept those judgments–as it does, eg, with Catholic annulments (not insisting on a divorce), but individuals (companies? corporations?) could refuse to? I don’t think that would work. If there was any serious interest involved (example: someone who’s received an annulment wants to join a dating service open only to singles), those who had received the judgment would simply sue the individual in question, and the state would have to find in favor of the judgment.

avatar Christopher Butler January 8, 2013 at 5:49 pm

The state does not recognize Catholic annulments. At least in the U.S.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: