Monday, September 03, 2007

The Separation of Church and the Predatory State

A United Methodist camp in Ocean Grove, New Jersey has been the scene of another of the denomination's recent sexuality wars. The camp is composed of a highly-developed beachfront area south of New York City featuring restaurants and shops in space leased out by the Methodist organization governing the property. Several months ago, a lesbian couple attempted to secure a pavilion for a civil union commitment ceremony and were turned down by the camp organization due to their sexual orientation.

The couple responded by filing a complaint with a state agency, claiming that the decision violated state laws about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Supporters have argued that the camp has received large sums of state and federal funding for economic development and therefore must abide by government standards on discrimination. They have also argued that the camp must be open to the public if it is to continue to qualify for a large tax exemption from New Jersey's environmental protection agency.

Last week, a Federal judge handed down an injunction against the state, prohibiting New Jersey from continuing its investigation on whether or not the camp violated anti-discrimination laws.

This dispute teaches us about the voracious, predatory nature of the state. When a church is foolish enough to take funding from the state, it is opening itself up to entanglement by government power. I have heard it said that drug dealers often offer narcotics to non-users for free...in the hope that they may later become addicted and subject to the great demands of the drug dealers. Such is the behavior of government. As Washington said, "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." The end result of churches taking government money is churches becoming controlled by the government. The Ocean Grove Camp Association should never have accepted government funding, nor a special tax exemption for land usage, and is now paying the price for its foolhardiness.

There are, however, attacks that this organization could not have protected itself from. Churches cannot prevent doctrine from being decided in civil courts if the courts force their way into what are entirely internal decisions of religious bodies. This is a horrendous abuse of government power which does indeed violate, as the defendants argue, the First Amendment. Nevertheless, we can expect that some gay rights advocates will use whatever means at their disposal to push their agenda through mainline denominations. That's why I predict that within two years, there will be a successful suit in civil court against United Methodist standards for ordination with regards to sexual orientation.

To those United Methodists who support the legal action against the camp, I say: beware of making use of government power. Just because the state is your friend today does not mean that it will be tomorrow. A government powerful enough to force doctrinal changes on your church that you like is powerful enough to make doctrinal changes that you won't like.

26 comments:

Henry Neufeld said...

I support separation of church and state strongly, but my starting point is generally the danger of the state to the church. In fact I think that goes two ways. First, when we accept the state's money, we get stuck with the state's standards. Second, when we give ourselves the options of using the state's power we are tempted to replace the power of the gospel with the power of the state. When that happens we become just another social service organization, only one with some religious baggage, which will appear extraneous.

John said...

I agree. The greater danger is the state to the church than the other way around. The church, for example, can't put you in jail. The state can.

toddwilliam said...

I'm with you on this one John. I support marriage for gays and lesbians, but I don't ever want the state to be the entity making those decisions for the church. That would be the worst way to go about it, a terrible precedent to set. But we are seeing more and more property-related cases like this involving the UMC and the state court system. Hm...

Elizabeth said...

Oops - that above comment was from me really. My brother was signed in on my computer with his account...

Gary said...

Has anyone ever been part of a church that refuses its tax exempt status? I have often wondered if we wouldn't be better off just giving them their money rather than living in fear that the tax exempt status will be taken away.

JD said...

John,

I commented on this originally over at Methoblog. I was not aware that the church had accepted state funds. My contention still holds true, though, that regardless of what others outside the church think about gay marriage, this case was about property rights of a private organization and not really about homosexuality. The church, as with any private entity, has the right to decide who uses their property. The day that no longer applies is the day we should all move to someplace like Cuba or Venezuela and live under a dictator. We would have just as much freedok there as in this good 'ole US of A.

PAX
JD

Dan Trabue said...

I agree with those who say that, once a church starts accepting state money, they have to start accepting state strings. And Paul was perfectly content to use his legal rights as a Roman to his advantage, I have no problem with the lesbians in this case doing the same.

If this church doesn't want state poking its nose in the church's business, don't take the gov't's money.

At our church, there has been some talk among some about refusing the tax exempt status, but we have conflicting values.

For one thing, we don't want to contribute money to causes we are diametrically opposed to - the Iraq Invasion, for instance. So, while some have talked of foregoing our tax exempt status, others have talked about ways to get us below taxable levels to not contribute anything to the state!

That, too, has its problems, as we think it just to support legitimate functions of the state - paying for common needs (sidewalks, mass transit, minimal roads,, etc) and enforcing minimal protections (against pollution, law enforcement, etc)...

Complex issue, seems to me, with no simple answers.

doodlebugmom said...

How come they refused because of their sexual orientation in the first place?

What happened to "Open Hearts.Open minds.Open doors?"

JD said...

doodlebugmom said:

"What happened to 'Open Hearts.Open minds.Open doors?'

Acceptance and condoning are 2 very different things. While the Christian church, Methodist Church, is accepting of all sinners, it does not condone the sin.

Again, "The public versus private status of not only the pavilion but also much of the Camp Meeting Association’s property is at the crux of the debate." JILL P. CAPUZZO, NYT

PAX
JD

Anonymous said...

Actually, the judge did not grant an injunction against the state. The state is still proceding with its investigation.

Alan said...

It would be helpful to remember that:

1) the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is not a church.

2) It is not a church group either.

3) It is not officially affiliated with the UMC or any other denomination, though all of the members of the board of trustees are members of the UMC.

4) The gazebo in question is not a worship facility. It hosts worship about 15 times a year. What is being requested is not that Methodists “host” something but rather that the Camp Meeting Association make available a gazebo-like structure on the boardwalk for civil unions as they have heretofore made it available for weddings of all denominations and faiths and purely civil affairs. Moreover, the structure, with no doors or windows, is principally used as a shady resting place on the boardwalk.

The misinformation about this case is astounding, especially since all of the above facts are available on the OGCA website, and in the legal documents they filed.

Matt said...

Here is a copy of the complaint filed by the OGCMA :

http://www.telladf.org/UserDocs/OceanGroveComplaint.pdf

It has several clarifications of what's been zooming around in the media.

JD said...

Alan,

Great points and great to share all the correct information. It is always good to have all the information when discussing topics like this, but as stated before:

"The public versus private status of not only the pavilion but also much of the Camp Meeting Association’s property is at the crux of the debate." JILL P. CAPUZZO, NYT

Regardless of the reason for the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) has for denying the couple their civil ceremony, they still have the right to deny it. This is similar to my neighbor wanting to have a big Bar-B-Que (aka “Meat Fest”) in my backyard. I tell him no because I am a vegan (not really, but for argument’s sake), and he files a suit that he is being discriminated against because he eats meat. Now yes, I get tax breaks from the government in the form of Homestead exemptions, but does that mean the government has the right to come in and tell me that I HAVE to let my neighbor use my yard for a function I do not agree with? No, because it is MY PRIVATE PROPERTY and I do not owe anyone an explanation as to why I said no.

This case will open so many cans of worms, from a private property perspective, similar to the ruling a few years ago that allows the government to come in and take someone’s private property and sell it to someone else with the understanding they could have a bigger tax base. But then again, it happened then, so why should we think it will be any different now.

PAX
JD

John said...

Thanks for the info, Alan. I'll look into it.

Larry B said...

I think the points John makes in his original post are dead on. I'm a little sketchy on the details, but I do recall the catholic charities recently discontinuing it's adoption activities in Masachussetts due to the states anti discrimination laws and the catholic churches stand on gays adopting. It must have been clear to them that the state would win out and they would be forced by the state to continue to operate in a manner that conflicted with a religious principle of their organization.

Similar to what Alan pointed out, the catholic charities are not a church nor a church group. Yet it was subject to this intrusion by the state. I see far more similarities than differences between these two cases. It seems fairly apparent that as more anti-discrimination laws are passed that protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orienation, that any organization that has a religious basis for that discrimination will be a potential target for action by the state including the church itself.

Dan Trabue said...

I don't see that happening. Churches have freedom of speech. As do individuals. As long as they're not encouraging hateful actions or committing crimes in the process of what they do, religious freedom folk like the ACLU, Baptists, Methodists and others will ensure they have their freedom to operate without interference from the State.

Alan said...

I would agree with JD, except that this space has apparently already been rented to numerous other folks for weddings that were not in the Christian tradition and/or not UMC weddings.

So it's pretty hard, it seems to me, to make a case that renting it to a gay couple "goes against their beliefs" since they seem to have no problem collecting money from other people who don't share their beliefs.

JD said...

Dan said, in response to Larry's statement(It seems fairly apparent that as more anti-discrimination laws are passed that protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orienation, that any organization that has a religious basis for that discrimination will be a potential target for action by the state including the church itself.):

"I don't see that happening. Churches have freedom of speech."

Dan,

Though I may not always agree with you on certain topics, all your writings are thought provoking and well thought out, but the above comment is a little naive and utopian (not that you are naive, just that statement), especially considering that this freedom of speech that we talk about and wish we have in America, has already been eroded to "freedom of speech as long as you don't say something that may offend someone else." So, yes, churches or any organization, that has ideas, beliefs, or teachings that are not in line with the "moral majority" and "political correctness" are limited in their freedoms.

Alan,

Though they may have collected in the past, the fact that the property is private does give them the right to change their mind or pick and choose, doesn't it? If not, then there really is no freedom of speech in America.

This case is not as much about discrimination as it is about a private property owner's right to do with their property as they wish.

PAX
JD

Dan Trabue said...

freedom of speech that we talk about and wish we have in America, has already been eroded to "freedom of speech as long as you don't say something that may offend someone else." So, yes, churches ...that are not in line with the "moral majority" and "political correctness" are limited in their freedoms.

Which legal freedoms have any churches or individuals lost due to "political correctness"? I'm not familiar with the first one.

The freedom to pray in school? It's still there. We just ask that you allow me my freedom FROM your religion in school and public places.

The freedom to be opposed to gay marriage, to speak out against homosexuality? It's there, as long as you're not inciting violence.

The freedom to preach the Gospel? Not hindered in anyway that I know.

So, I'm curious as to which legal freedoms you think have been lost?

Now, we DO live in a diverse culture where we ask that our children don't sit through a satanist's or a christian's prayer led by a teacher in a classroom, as that would be a hindrance on my freedom of religion.

We DO ask that we don't incite violence towards gays ("If we don't want to end up like Sodom and Gomorrah, we've got to stop these fags!"), but I'm sure you agree with that.

There are some glitches in balancing my freedom of religion with your freedom of religion, but overall, I'm confident that our religious liberty is intact. You may feel free to show me any freedoms that we've lost, though.

Dan Trabue said...

Oh, and JD, thanks for the kind words. Right backatcha.

Alan said...

"Alan, Though they may have collected in the past, the fact that the property is private does give them the right to change their mind or pick and choose, doesn't it? If not, then there really is no freedom of speech in America."

Sure they can, but they clearly lose the ability to make a believable argument that this has anything to do with their "faith" or their "beliefs" since obviously neither played a role in allowing others to use the gazebo. If they want to make the decision not to allow LGBT folks from using the gazebo, they should just be honest and say it's because they think gays are icky. People still have the right to be bigots in this country, they just shouldn't hide behind religion to do so, nor should we allow them to do so.

JD said...

Dan,

There may not be a direct lose of freedom of speech, but a supposed lose of freedom of speech. Being Christian, especially in certain parts of the country and in certain sectors of society, is extremely hard. Sharing your faith, though not government imposed, is censored because people in America do not want to hear the hard truth. They want the warm fuzzy of Jesus and not the honest truth. They tell you not to say certain things and try to pass laws that make it hate crimes to preach the truth of the Bible. We may not have "officially" lost our Freedom of Speech yet, but if we continue down this path, it will not be long.

Alan said:

"People still have the right to be bigots in this country, they just shouldn't hide behind religion to do so, nor should we allow them to do so."

Exactly, but no matter how correct or incorrect OGCMA may be in their decision, and no matter how inconsistent they may be in what is done, when did it ever become illegal to be stupid in the way you deal with your property. If the court rules in favor of the couple filing suit, then we lose a little bit of liberty. The judiciary branch in this country continues to legislate from the bench to an end that THEY find "right" or "correct" and at times have completely ignored what this country was not only founded on, but prides itself on: Freedom.

PAX
JD

Alan said...

"Exactly, but no matter how correct or incorrect OGCMA may be in their decision, and no matter how inconsistent they may be in what is done, when did it ever become illegal to be stupid in the way you deal with your property. If the court rules in favor of the couple filing suit, then we lose a little bit of liberty."

My argument is that they cannot believably claim this is either a freedom of religion case or a freedom of speech case, since neither of those issues entered into the picture when they approved the use of the gazebo by other groups from other faith traditions. I'm not saying they can't still *legally* make that argument; they probably can. I'm saying they lost the moral authority to make that argument when they (like most of the churches in this country) decided to rent out their facilities as a Las Vegas-style wedding chapel.

I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that the fact that 1) this isn't a church, 2) it is a non-profit corporation, 3) they accept public funds, 4) they're not being asked to endorse anything or make "doctrinal changes", just allow use a public building, and 4) they rent it to nearly anyone as long as they're not gay, makes this case very different than a church refusing to allow someone to get married in its sanctuary. (Oh, and let's not forget that civil unions are legal in NJ.) So I'm not sure I agree with you that we all lose any liberties if a court rules against them -- I generally don't buy slippery slope arguments.

I wonder -- if this non-profit corporation had refused to rent the gazebo to an interracial couple would people be making the same arguments in their favor? If they were forced to rent to an interracial couple would we then be losing liberties? Wasn't the banning of anti-miscegenation laws another example of the government getting involved in "changing doctrine" for those churches that supported such laws? (Again, the OGCMA isn't a church, just making the analogy...)

Dan Trabue said...

they tell you not to say certain things and try to pass laws that make it hate crimes to preach the truth of the Bible.

"Try" being the operative word. We aren't outlawing free speech. We can't outlaw our own freedom of speech because it is built into the Constitution. Some might try, but they can't succeed.

We'd have to change the Constitution to outlaw freedom of speech and that just isn't going to happen.

Now, we DO have limits on speech, we always have. We can't incite to riot, for instance. We can't slander, generally. We can't advertise known lies in the media (except for political ads!).

You and your church has the freedom to preach and to witness. You don't have the freedom to make people listen to you. This is as it should be.

Gov't has a responsibility not to endorse one particular religion over another, which is why this gov't-funded location has to allow the gay access. If this were a private property, the gov't would have zero say on what they said or who they let in.

This, too, is as it should be.

Do you feel peer pressure from your fellow citizens discouraging you from preaching or witnessing? Perhaps. But that is not the same as outlawing free speech.

T'ain't going to happen. To the degree that curtailments on our individual liberties WILL happen, I'd place my money on people giving up rights to Homeland Security for a greater sense of security long before the American people give up freedom of religious speech.

JD said...

Alan and Dan,

I appreciate the debate on this, but I am going to step back now, just because I will not have much time in the near future to respond in a timely manner.

I can see each of your points...some I agree with, some I disagree with. I still have a few overall questions and comments, but please do not feel jilted if you reply and I do not reply back:

1.) Is this or is this not private property? If it is not private property, then OGCMA does not have a leg to stand on. If they are private property, regardless of the acceptance of public funds, unless otherwise stated as a condition of the acceptance of the funds, they can deny anyone the right to do anything at their gazebo for no particular reason. As my example regarding the homestead exemption, I receive it for living in my house, without any strings, so the govn't cannot come in and dictate my property use unless previously noted in ordinances, etc., which I accept as a citizen.

2.) Sometimes we have to pick battles and I am not sure who is sillier in fighting this issue. The couple, from what I saw, could find a much more picturesque place to wed than there. The OGCMA, what do they lose IF they allow the ceremony (not being a church and all).

3.) I still believe, imho, that no matter how much we think our freedoms are safe from the courts or rogue reps, too much is happening in our country to be anything less than extremely vigilant.

State vs. Citizen
Public vs. Private
Faith vs. Secularism
All parts of the debate, and all topics that we could discuss for hours on end. :)

PAX
JD

crevo said...

There is a great organization called The Little Light House. They are a private Christian tuition-free school for special needs children. One time they decided to take government money in order to help a lot more kids, and within a year or two they had to choose between serving God and serving the state. They made the tough decision to serve God first, and almost lost the school. But now they are stronger than ever, and serve the Lord only (they don't even take United Way funds because of the restrictions imposed).

Anyway, if anyone wants to read the book detailing their struggle (not just this one, but many more, too), I can get you a free copy -- it is an AMAZING story. Send your mailing address to johnnyb@eskimo.com, and I'll drop you by a free copy.