Thursday, July 26, 2012

Church-State Battle Continues

Fr. William Lyon
With ample publicity, a Roman Catholic monsignor in Philadelphia was sentenced this week to jail for three to six years for his part in a child abuse scandal there.  A jury previously found Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, guilty of felony child endangerment.

He is the first high-ranking U.S. religious official to be convicted of such crimes.  He will not be the last in a centuries-old struggle between church and state.

The issue did not arise in ancient cultures.  There, in Greece, Rome, Persia, Assyria and Egypt, religion and the state were intertwined, just as they are in the Muslim world today.  Julius Caesar, for example, was a priest long before he stood astride the Roman Empire.

Thomas Becket
That changed in Europe after the rise of Christianity, however, as princes and prelates fought over control. In one egregious case, in the 1100s, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his confrontation with the King Henry II over who had jurisdiction over clergy misdeeds.  Becket was convinced that miscreant priests (and the occasional member of the religious hierarchy) must be tried in Catholic courts. Henry violently disagreed.  Four of his knights took it upon themselves to get rid of Becket by assassinating him in a church.

His death did nothing to resolve the debate.  For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church continued to try to dictate policy to various rulers, eventually losing out to the growing public insistence of separation of church and state.  

That would appear to be the situation now.  

It’s not.  The debate over the role religion plays in daily life rolls on.  Both sides can claim victories in recent years, including Monsignor Lynn’s conviction.

For example, in Fresno, California, a court there recently granted the right of disgruntled parishioners to maintain their membership in a church after being ousted by other members.  The ruling was based on property rights: the church was owned by all members.  Therefore, the court ruled, no group of members could disenfranchise dissidents.

Opponents were appalled, insisting that the ruling gave civil authorities the power to impose church membership.

Judge Hamilton
Another judge forced the Indiana House of Representatives to drop religious prayers that endorse specific religions in favor of nonsectarian versions. Federal Judge David Hamilton (left) wrote that visiting clergy:

" not have a First Amendment use an official platform like the Speaker's express their own religious faiths....If the Speaker chooses to continue to permit nonsectarian prayers as part of the official proceedings, he shall advise all persons offering such prayers...that the prayers must be non-sectarian and must not be used to proselytize or advance any one faith or belief or to disparage any other faith or belief....The prayers should not use Christ's name or title or any other denominational appeal."

In contrast, the Supreme Court has endorsed the public use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.  The words were added during Eisenhower’s presidency.
This year, the Court went further and ruled that the government cannot get involved in personnel decisions made by a religious organization even if the employees sues for employment discrimination.

Supreme Court Justice Roberts
In his written decision, Chief Justice John Roberts (right) said that the First Amendment, which reads ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” bars the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.  “The Establishment Clause prevents the government from appointing ministers,” Roberts said, and the “Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.”

“The Supreme Court made clear today that religion is special,” said Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group that backed the plaintiffs in the case.

That’s what Becket was claiming nearly a millennium ago.  

The issue isn’t going anywhere despite the lack of attention paid it these days.  More Catholic leaders face civil punishments as child abuse cases pile up.  Bishop Robert Finn of the Kansas City diocese, for example, is scheduled to go to trial next month for allegedly failing to report suspected child sexual abuse. The Church tried to “punish” its own by moving suspected pedophile priests to unsuspecting diocese and covered up the scandal until the government stepped in, not just in the U.S., but in other countries.

At the same time, conservative political leaders are pushing for the insertion of more Christianity into American society, trying, it seems, to revert to the days before public pressure divorced religion from public life.  As one-time Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum noted, the idea of separating church and state made him ill.  

“I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," Santorum said in February, renewing a very old struggle.

The ancient fight is not likely to end soon. The government must prevail.  It’s vital to the survival of our nonreligious institutions.   

As the Supreme Court of Wisconsin noted in an 1890 case:  There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed."

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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