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Issues of Church and State

April 22, 2012     Time: 00:21:39
Issues of Church and State


Some important court cases in the news are discussed by Dr. Craig. Also, can the U.S. be defined as a "Christian Nation"?

Transcript Issues of Church and State


Kevin Harris: Welcome back. It's Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. You may have noticed another resource that we have at and that is, Dr. Craig does an audio blog on current events. It's part of his Defenders class, which, by the way, you can also get at, just click on Defenders. [1] Quite often, Dr. Craig, you'll take an excursion from your usual work and comment on something on the news or in culture.

Dr. Craig: Right. When they touch on issues of religious or ethical significance – I try to stay out of politics – but when you have this intersection of political or public policy with religious or ethical issues then I think it's quite appropriate to speak out on these.

Kevin Harris: And so many people who write to us at Reasonable Faith, as well, they want to know your opinion – they see you as a leader in many areas. So what was the content of this blog? People can go and listen to it but you also made some comments. [2]

Dr. Craig: Yes, well, there were two. The first concerned a recent unanimous Supreme Court decision, which was really remarkable, Kevin, because all of the justices concurred in this – finding that the government does not have the right to intrude upon the hiring practices of religious organizations.

Kevin Harris: And this is in reference to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC. World Magazine was one of the publications reporting on this, Bill, and they report, of course, that

U.S. Supreme Court [on January 11 ruled] unanimously . . . that courts may not intervene in church hiring decisions, protecting the "ministerial exception" that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sought to eliminate in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC[3]

Now, Luke Goodridge, who's a lawyer at the Becket Fund said, “it was a strong rebuke to the extreme position taken by the Obama administration. It's a great day for religious liberty.”

Dr. Craig: It really is. I find it astonishing, frankly, that all nine justices, even the most liberal justices, would concur in this decision that you can't apply the law about equal opportunity hiring practices to religious organizations with regard to the ministers that they choose to hire. This would be an over-stepping of state authority, to step in and tell a religious organization what sort of minister it is free to hire or not. So now suits cannot be brought against churches and other religious organizations by persons claiming that they've been discriminated against.

Kevin Harris: Justice Roberts said, “We are reluctant to adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” So they give them a little lee-way there.

Dr. Craig: That's right, this was left undecided: who is a minister? The court left it open as to exactly who it is that qualifies as a minister. So, for example, say you have a school in your church for elementary children, as many churches do, the teachers in that school could well qualify as minsters. In fact, several of the justices wrote concurring opinions, such as Clarence Thomas and some of the other justices, saying that anyone that's hired by a religious church organization can qualify as a minister if that organization says they are minsters. The court itself left that open, but that is very important because you can imagine situations in which, say, homosexual activists would not only bring suits against a church for not hiring ministers that are practicing homosexuals, claiming discrimination, but they might also bring such suits because you haven't, say, hired people in your day school or on your facility staff, or some other capacity in the church who are practicing homosexuals. And because it leaves open exactly who qualifies as a minister, those people would seem to be at least thus far protected as well. So this is a real boon for the religious freedom of churches and Christian organizations with regard to their hiring practices. They don't have to hire people who have lifestyles or engage in activities that the church regards as immoral or fundamentally un-Christian. The government cannot say, “This is discriminatory and therefore you must hire these applicants.” [4]

Kevin Harris: You've also been following, Bill, the Obama administration's ruling that most health insurance plans must cover contraceptives for women free of charge, and it rejected a broad exception sought by the Roman Catholic Church for insurance provide to employees of Catholic hospitals, colleges, and charities.

Dr. Craig: Yes, this is, again, a remarkable attempt by the administration to overstep the boundaries of religious liberty. It is, in effect, breaking down the separation of church and state, which normally secularists think is so important. But it's breaking it down not from the religious side – it's not in this case religion trying to intrude into public schools or other governmental institutions – here the erosion is coming from the other side of the wall. The government is attempting to break down the separation between church and state by mandating in the health care law, in the so-called ObamaCare, that religious organizations who serve people that are not part of their own constituency must cover, for example, things like contraception, even if it goes against the teachings of that religious organization. In this case the Roman Catholic Church says that it is against their conscience, it's against their doctrine, to practice contraception. And the issue here, Kevin, is not about contraception. I want that to be so clearly understood because most of us, I think, would not think contraception is something immoral. The issue here is religious liberty. Do these religious organizations have the freedom of conscience not to do things that violate their own doctrine and practice? And in this case the government is stepping in and saying to these Catholic organizations, “If you have people on your staff who are not Catholic, or if you serve people who are not Catholic, you have to cover their health insurance for contraception.” So this will affect Catholic universities, Catholic charities, Catholic hospitals, and will force them to do something that is contrary to church teaching and doctrine. So this is an enormous overreach, I think, by the state to try to infringe upon religious liberty in these health insurance mandates.

Kevin Harris: And, Bill, it is a Catholic and Protestant issue for the reasons you just pointed out.

Dr. Craig: Really it's an issue, Kevin, that all civil libertarians should be concerned about, not just religious people. I would hope that people who are secular would say, “this is eroding the separation of church and state; this must not be allowed to stand. We must not allow the government to intrude into religion in this way.” One of the Catholic bishops said that the Obama administration policy defined what qualifies as a religious exception so narrowly, that even Jesus and the disciples wouldn't have qualified for it because they served people outside their constituency; they reached out to others. So this is really a very dangerous, I think, move for religious liberty in our country and all civil libertarians need to protest this.

Kevin Harris: The National Association of Evangelicals said that as a result of the White House decision, “employers with religious objections to contraception will be forced to pay for services and procedures they believe are morally wrong.”

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. And you know, Kevin, it's very interesting, it's not just contraception because included in these measures are things like the morning after pill which is really an abortifacient. It doesn't prevent conception, it destroys the products of conception. So that, really, this amounts to government mandated coverage of abortion, in effect.

Kevin Harris: And you know, Bill, this is what the founding fathers really wanted. They wanted the government to stay out of the church so that we would have the free exercise of religion. I mean, that's what they suffered from, and that's what they really emphasized, and most of the time in the news, in the media, you hear of things that seem to go the other way.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right. In the media what they think is being violated is the establishment clause, that Congress shall enact no law serving to establish religion. But really what we're seeing here, I think, is, as I say, an erosion from the other side of the wall. It is violating the free exercise clause that is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. [5]

Kevin Harris: Something happened this past Christmas season, Bill, that I wanted to run past you as well. It's an example of this. It happened only about thirty miles from our home and it made international news. And that is – there's a small town, Athens, Texas, small east Texas town, church on every corner, and they have a little town square – they hold events there, and they decorate it and the townspeople get together and they have festivals and things, and they have all kinds of Christmas decorations on this town square. And for years and years and years they've had a nativity scene there. Well, the town square is also where the courthouse sits. One women apparently got online and complained about it, and it got to the ears of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. And so they went into full attack mode to get this nativity scene off of the courthouse grounds. And you just don't tell a bunch of east Texas town folks what they can and can't have on their town square. It was a hornet's nest, but it brought up the issues. And there was a huge rally there and thousands of people showed up in support of the nativity scene sitting there. Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a banner that was atheistic – there are no Gods, these are myths, and things like that – and said, okay, if you're going to have that then put ours up, too, because it's a public forum; and they said, alright, we'll think about it. That kind of a thing. Well, my thinking on it, and I'm not a legal scholar, is that, Bill, can't some common sense reign here? The majority of the people in the town are Christians, they're Baptist, and this is something that they have in their town, and can't it be viewed as the free exercise of the community? To go in and impose something like this on these townspeople is not very common sensical. It doesn't promote the peace. In fact, it's very disruptive. I'm just asking: why can't common sense prevail?

Dr. Craig: The courts have construed the establishment clause so broadly, Kevin, that they've prohibited having just nativity scenes because this supposedly – by having it on government property – supposedly serves to establish a religion. Now, that's surely not what the framers of the Bill of Rights were thinking of when they said that the government should not pass a law serving to establish religion. They were probably thinking that there shouldn’t be a state church, as the Church of England was established in England as the state church. So they were thinking, I think, of not having any sort of state church established by the government. But the courts have construed this clause so broadly that even to have a nativity scene on government property, like a courthouse, is supposedly serving to establish religion. Now, I think that's really odd myself. I don't see that that establishes a religion. And, moreover, that strikes me as really odd that having a nativity scene on public property is thought to be an establishment of religion. That seems a real stretch to me. But in any case, what seems to be overlooked here is that Christmas is a federal holiday. It's a national holiday to have Christmas. So it's hard to see how the government can establish Christmas as a federal holiday and yet prohibit the trappings of Christmas on public display on governmental property. So that is very odd, I think. But in any case, the courts have said you can have a nativity scene if you want to but then you do have to allow other religions to have their displays as well and that's undoubtedly what this atheist group was thinking of. Paradoxically there have been Supreme Court cases where atheism has been declared to be a religion – atheism is a religion – and therefore has the protection afforded to the free exercise of religion, so they can put their banner on the courthouse property as well.

Kevin Harris: And the word 'holiday' is rather problematic too because it means holy day. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Well, it's really odd – isn't it? – that our courts in some cases have interpreted the establishment clause so broadly, [6] and yet it still permits things like 'In God We Trust' as a national motto that can be on the coins and other sorts of references to God as part of civil religion. That's allowed, and it doesn't see that as establishment.

Kevin Harris: Sure. I hate to see the death of common sense in these things because to rule out a heritage, and our national heritage, and our deeply religious national heritage and founding, just seems so counter-productive and nonsensical to me.

Dr. Craig: Well, you sound like a narrow constructionist to me, Kevin. [laughter] You want to stick to the letter of the Constitution and what it's original intent was, rather than these broad and elastic interpretations that say that even a nativity scene on the public courthouse square is a violation of the establishment clause. The letter of the law would say that's not a law that's serving to establish religion – right? – I mean, nobody passed a law establishing a religion by having a nativity scene at the courthouse.

Kevin Harris: And do we get in trouble when we start trying to look at the spirit of the law? I mean, make it broad and elastic?

Dr. Craig: Well, that's where the courts begin to legislate – doesn't it? – and they begin to do things and find rights that are no where actually in the Constitution, and that is the huge debate that goes on every time there's a new Supreme Court nominee come before the Senate, whether or not this is going to be a strict constructionist who will stick to the letter of the Constitution or someone who will interpret it in a very broad and elastic way that seems to some as though the court is engaging in legislating things rather than simply interpreting the law.

Kevin Harris: Bill, you often hear that America was founded upon Christianity, and, “this is our founding and our forefathers founded it upon Christianity.” Is that accurate?

Dr. Craig: No, I don't think it is accurate. The founding fathers were very clear that they were not establishing a religious state or a state with even an established church. I think what's true is that the majority of people in this country overwhelming have been Christians so that the Unites States can be said to be a Christian country in the same way that Egypt can be said to be a Muslim country or Turkey is a Muslim country. That is to say the governments in those nations are until today, at least, politically neutral but the majority of the population of those countries is Muslim. And similarly we have a strong Christian heritage here in the Unites States in our populace, but we have a separation of church and state in that the state is not allowed to intrude upon the free exercise of religion, nor is the state to do anything to pass a law establishing any sort of a religion.

Kevin Harris: Would it be more accurate, then, to say that we are founded upon Christian principles or Judeo-Christian principles and milieu. I mean, do we need to revise that in a more accurate way and not say, “We were founded upon Christianity. We are a Christian nation.” It sounds inaccurate.

Dr. Craig: Oh, I think that is grossly inaccurate, if you put it that way.

Kevin Harris: Yeah. What people mean, though, when they say it is, “We're just imbued with Christian principles, Judeo-Christian principles, and the founding fathers, and this culture . . . it's been our heritage.” So that's more accurate to say.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: And in light of that somebody ought to say, “Well, yeah, there's no compelling reason to just get rid of any vestiges of that heritage that this country's always held so dear.”

Dr. Craig: Yes, the question is, Kevin, whether or not eliminating Christian practices from governmental spheres, like the courthouse grounds, constitutes getting rid of that heritage. Those who would claim that it's not would say this is simplying to maintain the neutrality of government with respect to religion. And I actually – as I've said on other occasions – am very grateful that in the United States we do have a separation of church and state because I've seen in Europe the deadening effects of state-established religion such as you have with the Anglican church in England or certain churches in Germany. I think it has contributed to the vitality and dynamism of American Christianity that it isn't an establish church, that it's separate from the government. [7] But that isn't to say that we stand by idly when, as in this case of the Obama health care plan, the government begins to overstep its bounds and intrude into religious affairs. Then we need to push back strongly.

Kevin Harris: Final question, Dr. Craig, what do we need to do as citizens? What are some actions we can take? I think our attitude quite often is: “Well, that's way over my head,” or, “I don't have time,” or, “Somebody else does that somewhere and that is really aloof from me, I don't know what to do about this.”

Dr. Craig: Well, the most important thing would be to just be informed. Christians need to be watching the news, reading their news magazines so that they're aware of these sorts of things happening, and then vote appropriately. There are very clear political choices to be made in most elections for important offices these days, and we can vote for those candidates that will support religious liberty and protect us from state-controlled religion.

Kevin Harris: Very easy, easier than ever, to get involved with the advent of the internet. You don't have to write a letter and put it in an envelope and take it to the post office anymore, or dial the rotary phone [laughter], which took forever. It's so much easier these days. Thank you for your insight, Dr. Craig. We'll see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. [8]