Henriques: Church-State Separation is ‘Portable Wall’By: Tasha Schroeder
The separation of church and state in America is a “portable wall,” said New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques during an April 11 lecture (view webcast) sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University.
“There is a supply of important cases heading through the judicial pipeline” with the potential to affect separation of church and state issues, said Henriques, who has won numerous awards in her two decades of financial investigative reporting. “Some of these cases may move this portable wall fairly soon, given the pending key personnel changes on the Supreme Court.”
Her address, “Looking for the Wall: Impressions of a Newcomer to the Changing Church-State Landscape,” explored issues surrounding the intersection of church and state in America, including diminishing workers’ rights for employees of religious organizations and special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents.
Henriques is the author of “In God’s Name,” a recent Times series that looks at how American religious organizations benefit from an increasingly accommodating government.
“As a financial reporter, the nonprofit world is not unknown to me. What was unknown to me was the constitutional minefield of the establishment clause” of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, she said.
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Henriques added, “We found that since the 101st Congress in 1989, there have been enacted more than 200 bills giving new exemptions or special treatment uniquely to religious organizations.
“Taken along with the fact that Congress and the White House have made federal contracting rules more accommodating toward religious organizations seeking public funds, this roster of exemptions and tax breaks suggested that the fierce rhetoric about the ‘war on religion’ in America was somewhat off the mark, at least with respect to the institutional interests of religious organizations.”
“Churches are not subject to certain taxes, but receive public benefits… There is no way to accurately measure the cost of these exemptions to taxpayers,” Henriques said. “The only state we found that regularly, in a usable format, reports this is Colorado.”
“This series is one of the most satisfying, yet most controversial, I’ve ever written,” Henriques said. “When reader responses to the series came in, turning the other cheek became a daily exercise.”
The series detailed expanding benefits enjoyed by American religious organizations, from tax exemptions for ministerial housing to property tax exemptions for high-end senior citizen housing and theme parks, to unregulated hiring practices and service offerings, to protections against employee unionization.
Part of the series’ controversy came from differing understandings of what the phrase “separation of church and state” means, Henriques said. “Each word in ‘separation of church and state’ is open to interpretation. It’s three nouns seeking a verb. What do we mean by separation? Do we seek special treatment for religious organizations, or do we seek government neutrality?
“The most hostility arose from the elusive way society defines ‘church,’” she said. “While I meant that churches are religious institutions with institutional needs and goals just as other nonprofits have, people thought that I was declaring war on religion.”
The word “state” can be defined multiple ways as well, Henriques said. “Is the state the exercise of political authority or is it the U.S. Supreme Court of the federal government?”
Henriques continued, “These issues of church and state can be divided into two groups: those that are rooted in belief, and those that reflect institutional needs and goals.”
The hiring practices of religious organizations can reflect both the institution’s beliefs and its organizational needs, she added. “The tricky part comes with public funding that is then used to finance activities that practice religious discrimination, particularly if it is a form that is preclusive on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.
“If a church gets a federal contract to provide a service and then runs an ad that states that only Christians may apply, how can that be right? How can that be what this nation is supposed to stand for?
“The courts will not enter into employer disputes between a religious organization and its spiritual leaders… This is one of the most intractable problems arising out of faith-based initiatives,” she added.
Henriques also said she believes that the post-9/11 culture in this country has created an unfavorable environment for some minority faiths. “The War on Terror is casting its shadow in this realm as well,” she added. “It is a nerve point in this debate yet to fully blossom… [These] exemptions presuppose a very familiar view of religions… and fit nicely with the Judeo-Christian faith, but are not as well-suited to our pluralistic society.
“What about Muslims, Hindus, or Quakers?” Henriques asked. “Would the same exemptions that mainstream denominations enjoy be acceptable for minority faiths?”
Henriques’ groundbreaking series has prompted additional media attention. “I see a lot more local news coverage about these issues, “ she said. “This is a suggestion that at least some of my colleagues are starting to think about it, and that there has been a shift in coverage – reporters that had been covering it from a local, political, and governmental level are now starting to look at the First Amendment and separation of church and state aspects.”
A New York Times reporter since 1989, Henriques has specialized in covering financial fraud, white-collar crime, and corporate governance issues. In 2005, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in investigative reporting for her articles on the fleecing of young soldiers by insurance and investment companies.
The Center for the Study of Law and Religion is home to world-class scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers first-rank expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have shaped and can continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives. The scholarship of CSLR faculty provides the latest perspectives, while its conferences and public forums foster reasoned and robust public debate.
Read the New York Times series:
Part 1: As Exemptions Grow, Religion Outweighs Regulation
Part 2: Where Faith Abides, Employees Have Few Rights
Part 3: Religious Programs Expand, So Do Tax Breaks
Part 4: Religion-Based Tax Breaks: Housing to Paychecks to
Part 5: Ministry’s Medical Program Is Not Regulated
Part 6: Religion for Captive Audiences, With Taxpayers
Footing the Bill