church-state issues

Toughest church-states battles: When faith-healing doctrines lead to children dying

Toughest church-states battles: When faith-healing doctrines lead to children dying

Anyone who has studied the separation of church and state knows that there are all kinds of issues in this field that cry out for compromise -- but compromises acceptable to both sides are often next to impossible to find.

No, I am not talking about LGBTQ issues that pit religious liberty against emerging concepts of sexual liberty.

I'm talking about cases in which the religious convictions of parents -- specifically the belief that all medical issues should be handled through prayer and "natural" remedies -- lead to the death of children. Basically, courts are being asked to draw a line limiting parental rights, when it comes to a contest between faith and modern medicine.

As a rule, state officials are supposed to avoid becoming entangled in matters of faith and doctrine. However, there are limits. Here at GetReligion, I have repeatedly noted that state officials have the right to intervene when cases involve fraud, profit and clear threat to life and health. "Faith healing" cases pivot on whether a religious group's teachings represent a "clear threat" to believers, especially children.

A reader recently pointed me to a massive PennLive.com (Gannett newspapers in Central Pennsylvania) report that ran under the headline: "God's will vs. medicine: Does Faith Tabernacle beliefs put children at risk?"

I want to stress that there is much to recommend in this piece, including the fact that it places debates about Pennsylvania law affecting "faith healing" in the context of ongoing national debates about Christian Science, the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the traditions of the Amish and others. There are places where I would question the wording used by the PennLive.com team, but I still want to salute the research done here.

This piece is way better than the norm on this difficult topic. Here is a long, but crucial passage:

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We have a confirmed sighting of an old-school (think liberal) church-state coalition

We have a confirmed sighting of an old-school (think liberal) church-state coalition

The history of church-state relations in the United States is a very complicated subject, the kind of intellectual terrain that you could spend several semesters exploring in a graduate degree (as I once did, late in the Vietnam War era). 

In recent decades, roughly the era defined by the rise of the Religious Right, there have been several distinct stages in church-state affairs. At one point, it was rare for thinkers on the left and right to communicate with one another. Then came the Clinton White House years when -- I know this will be hard for some readers to believe -- there was serious progress and constructive dialogue, primarily because conservatives began to enthusiastically embrace the First Amendment. Yes, even though the politics of abortion loomed in the background.

As I wrote in a post early in the Barack Obama administration:

You see, once upon a time there was a wide coalition -- roughly from the ACLU to Pat Robertson -- that was focused on another issue altogether, which was free speech, freedom of association and trying to find ways (think "equal access" laws) that treated religious believers and nonbelievers the same when it came time for them to express their beliefs. ...
It was crucial, you see, for believers and nonbelievers to have the maximum amount of freedom without the government getting entangled (the key word) in determining which doctrines were acceptable and which were not. If the chess team got to use a room after school, then so did Campus Crusade for Christ (or the young atheists circle). 

Can you imagine that kind of truly liberal (in the old sense of that word) coalition existing today, in an era defined by bitter battles about gay marriage and, in a strange healthcare flashback, birth control? I know, it's hard to imagine.

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NYTimes Metro desk probes some of the church-state ties that bind

NYTimes Metro desk probes some of the church-state ties that bind

I continue to field questions about the meaning of the term "Kellerism," which is well on its way to entering the GetReligionista dictionary. To catch up on that debate, surf this collection of links or, in particular, read this earlier post.

The bottom line: "Kellerism," a direct reference to you know who saying you know what, is deliberate advocacy journalism in coverage of hot-button stories linked to religious, moral and cultural issues. The key is that The Times, as an institution, has never formally stated that its commitment to accurate, balanced coverage has been edited in this manner. This is a selective bias.

However, some recent trends at The Times may require a slight tweaking of my definition. It appears that "Kellerism" primarily kicks into play in stories addressing issues linked to the world's most powerful newspapers's defense of sacred doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution. Long-suffering religious believers who continue to follow the newspaper day after day may have noticed that its Metro desk is producing some very interesting and fair-minded coverage of religion.

Consider the recent news feature that ran under the headline, "De Blasio’s Prekindergarten Expansion Collides With Church-State Divide."

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How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

So far, no-one has yet posted a question on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing certain religious exemptions from the Obama Administration’s birth control mandate. So The Guy is posting his own analysis of an important case that highlights the nation’s religious, moral, legal, and political divisions. The case involved the Hobby Lobby craft stores and two smaller businesses wholly owned by evangelical Protestant families. They believe that because human life begins at conception it’s sinful to pay for intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning-after” pills that may constitute early abortion by (a disputed point) preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Other Christians disagree. Justice Alito’s opinion for a spare 5-4 majority said such “closely held” commercial companies enjoy religious freedom protection just like churches and individuals.

Two religious denominations that favor total birth control coverage charge that the Court violated liberty rather than respecting it. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association said the ruling “dangerously diminishes the religious, moral, and legal rights of every American, but especially women,” and decried “the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.” Reform Judaism’s top four officials jointly declared that the Court majority “denies the religious liberty” of these women employees and “the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Protestant businesses were supported by the Catholic and Mormon churches, numerous evangelical groups, Orthodox Jews, a prominent Muslim educator, 107 members of Congress (mostly Republicans), and 20 of the 50 states. The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops said the Court upheld “the rights of Americans to live out their faith in daily life.” The public policy spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, hailed “an absolute victory for religious liberty” and for “common sense and conscience.”

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Gasp! NYTimes covers the heart of Kennedy's argument!

Let’s hear it for The New York Times, a newspaper that can always be trusted to get key information on both sides of hot religious and cultural debates into print. Actually, in contrast with the CNN Belief Blog editorial that our own Jim Davis parsed this morning, the basic Times news report on the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Et Al decision (.pdf) does a pretty good job of allowing readers to hear voices on both sides of this important debate.

The bottom line: This story managed to mention one of the most crucial questions facing the justices, which is, “Is nonsectarian prayer possible?” And after that question comes another church-state puzzle: Who is in charge of determining whether any given believer’s sort-of-free speech is nonsectarian enough to pass muster with state officials?

As always, the crucial swing vote in this 5-4 decision belonged to America’s uncrowned king, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a pro-business moral-libertarian country-club Republican who is to some degree an American Catholic.

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Gasp! NYTimes covers the heart of Kennedy's argument!

Let’s hear it for The New York Times, a newspaper that can always be trusted to get key information on both sides of hot religious and cultural debates into print. Actually, in contrast with the CNN Belief Blog editorial that our own Jim Davis parsed this morning, the basic Times news report on the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Et Al decision (.pdf) does a pretty good job of allowing readers to hear voices on both sides of this important debate.

The bottom line: This story managed to mention one of the most crucial questions facing the justices, which is, “Is nonsectarian prayer possible?” And after that question comes another church-state puzzle: Who is in charge of determining whether any given believer’s sort-of-free speech is nonsectarian enough to pass muster with state officials?

As always, the crucial swing vote in this 5-4 decision belonged to America’s uncrowned king, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a pro-business moral-libertarian country-club Republican who is to some degree an American Catholic.

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Dear Sun editors: Do you favor a state-endorsed faith or not?

Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing. Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.

This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.

The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions — “entangled” is the big word — about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.

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Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the NYTimes

As a rule, conflicts between church and state are extremely complex and often produce headaches, even among those who have years of experience working in such dangerous intellectual terrain. Frankly, I have no idea how general-assignment reporters can handle this stuff without the help of thick research folders and very experienced editors.

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Taking a legal walk in a church's non-religious woods

For decades, I have been covering stories involving clashes between religious organizations and state and county tax officials. The key plot elements in these legal dramas usually include:

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