Bette and I sat down recently with a couple we had not yet met, but with whom we would be spending the next two weeks on a bike and barge trip. The conversation turned political fairly quickly—no surprise in an election year–and then almost as quickly, began to move down that path that leads to hard and nasty. In an attempt to keep us from going down that path, I proposed that we give sex and religion their fair share of the time.
It struck me as odd that religion would be a safer topic than politics and since then, I have been noticing those odd church and state frictions. To me, it seems to highlight the difference between someone acting officially, on behalf of an organization, or unofficially, as the person he or she is. In this piece, we will see that both the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Constitution are much more interested in agents than in persons.
Let’s start with the IRS and tax-exempt churches. There is a movement, I hear, called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Pastors are urged to back political candidates from the pulpit “in a direct challenge to tax laws that prohibit churches from engaging in electoral politics.” The quote is from the October 31, 2012 Christian Century article called “Stump Sermons.” But, of course, the tax laws do not prohibit churches from engaging in electoral politics. They prohibit them from electoral politics AND their treasured 501(c) (3) exemption. The IRS says you can’t be taxed like a charitable organization and act like a lobbying organization. The state does not want, that is to say, to fund private lobbying with public dollars.
That seems sensible to me. The question for a church is to decide whether it wants to be content with saying that some public policies are “good” or “godly” and that others are “evil” or “demonic.” Policies. Not candidates. You can thunder all you want from any pulpit in the land that God will not abide homosexual marriages or torture as national policy against our enemies and the IRS watches contentedly. Instructing your parishioners to vote for Obama or for Romney is another matter entirely, as the IRS sees it.
Does this “muzzle” the pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams? Yes. Does it muzzle the persons who hold those offices and play those roles? No. In a distinction long familiar to sociologists, I need to act as myself or in the character my role requires. The IRS doesn’t care all that much about hallway conversations, winks, nudges, and implications. They care about homilies—or, in a case I encountered recently, congregational prayers of confession.
The same question is being faced by the cheerleaders of the Kountze Independent School District. In a story the New York Times has been all over, the cheerleaders have been reproved for painting Bible verses on the paper barrier the team breaks through as they run onto the field. The Freedom From Religion Foundation called the banners unconstitutional. They are a Wisconsin-based group, which is made up of atheists and agnostics and have been active in East Texas, which is chock-full of Southern Baptists. The District’s superintendent, Kevin Weldon, claims that prohibiting the students from writing Christian banner messages violated their religious liberties and free-speech rights. Does that sound familiar? The role that was played by the IRS in the question of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is played in this story by the Constitution.
Are these young women themselves and nothing more when they put on the cheerleaders’ uniforms and make signs for the school’s football team? Kieara Moffett, an 11th grade cheerleader said about their banner—I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me (Phil 4:13)—“I feel like it’s getting God’s word out to those that need it.” That it is “God’s word” and that “getting it out” is a good idea and that there are “those who need it” are the views of teenage Kieara Moffett. That these personal beliefs of Kieara’s ought to be painted on a sign for the official school team to run through as they are cheered by the official school cheerleaders are, ultimately, the views of the school.
So far as the school is concerned, those views would belong to Kevin Weldon, the district’s superintendent. Weldon decided to prohibit the cheerleaders from putting Bible verses on the signs. He said that in prohibiting them, he was violating the school’s policies protecting students in expressing their religious viewpoints and school’s discriminating against the cheerleaders.
That puts Mr. Weldon on one side of the issue and the policies on the other. He prohibited the signs based on legal advice. He and the attorneys had their eyes on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, which established that prayers led by students at high school football games were unconstitutional and had the improper effect of coercing those in the audience to take part in an act of religious worship. So it looks to me as if the consensus is that “protecting the students in expressing their religious viewpoints”—when these students are acting as official agents of the school—is unconstitutional.
The school’s policies are on one side and the U. S. Constitution on the other. On the other hand, Mr. Weldon said that he supported the cheerleaders and that, as a Christian, he agreed with their religious viewpoints. It is that sentence that brings the tightest focus, as I see it. Weldon supports the cheerleaders and he supports the school policies that protect the students in the expression of their religious views. Further, as a Christian himself, he thinks that they are right. On the other hand, the Constitution makes the distinction between persons as selves and persons as agents. Mr. Weldon doesn’t, but his attorneys do and so do his opponent’s attorneys.
Does that strike you as a bad place to be?