No Religious Tests for Public Office? What about Political Tests to Receive Sacraments?

Pepperdine University School of Law Professor, and former Constitutional law advisor for President Ronald Reagan, Douglas Kmiec was denied communion recently at a mass connected with a gathering of Catholic business people. The priest denounced Kmiec's endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama, then refused to give Kmiec communion.

Professor Kmiec describes the situation in his article "The Politics of Apostacy" in The Catholic as follows:

Having been drawn to Senator Obama's remarkable "love thy neighbor" style of campaigning, his express aim to transcend partisan divide, and specifically, his appreciation for faith ("secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square"), I did not expect to be clobbered by co-religionists.

On the blogs, I have been declared "self-excommunicated," and recently at a Mass before a dinner speech to Catholic business leaders, a very angry college chaplain excoriated my Obama-heresy from the pulpit at length and then denied my receipt of communion.

National Public Radio also picked up the story and produced audio at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91087067 and Andrew Sullivan provides his take on the story at http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/05/the-theocon-thr.html

The Catholic Church has distanced itself from the actions of the priest, but it raises an interesting question.  Does the Constitution only disallow religious tests for public office, or does it also disallow political tests for participating in church activities?  For years, the stock response has been that churches jeopardize their tax exempt status when they engage in this type of politicization, and from a practical standpoint, most clergy would do well to avoid engaging in political controversy.

On the other hand, there is a constitutional right of association, which by its terms is also the right to exclude. Typically, churches can exclude on theological grounds, moral grounds, and based on what people express on a number of issues, but they cannot exclude based on politics.  This is probably a good thing as the last thing America needs is for even more of its pulpits become political soapboxes.  We've seen enough of that this election year to last a lifetime. From situations involving Barack Obama's pastor on the left to the actions of a local priest on the right it raises problems.  And, as Professor Kmiec points out, the response of "co-religionists" can indeed have a clobbering effect as their political ideas are powered by omnipotent faith.

But what I'm wondering is whether, from a legal standpoint, aside from jeopardizing their tax exempt status, what prevents churches from engaging in full-blown political activity?  How far can churches go under existing law? What do you think?

 
 

8 Comments

  1. Kevin James says:

    This story clearly shows the dangers of mingling religion with politics at any level in any form. When a church refuses to minister to its own people due to political differences religion has become servant to the state and the church's character is warped. James Madison said it best, "Religion is not in the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognizance; a connection between them is injurious to both."

  2. Kevin James says:

    This story clearly shows the dangers of mingling religion with politics at any level in any form. When a church refuses to minister to its own people due to political differences religion has become servant to the state and the church's character is warped. James Madison said it best, "Religion is not in the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognizance; a connection between them is injurious to both."

  3. Owen Bandy says:

    Again I just have to say that the evidence shows that when a church begins to use coercive methods to enforce it's ideology it's most likely an indication of a lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit to take care of things that are under His jurisdiction.

  4. Owen Bandy says:

    Again I just have to say that the evidence shows that when a church begins to use coercive methods to enforce it's ideology it's most likely an indication of a lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit to take care of things that are under His jurisdiction.

  5. Brian Vistaunet says:

    Of course they can deny him mass. They are a free to do as they believe. I am also free to do as I believe and have nothing to do with a church that behaved like that.

    From a legal perspective, I think for the state to force churches steer completely clear of any politically based action would have to represent a state infringement on the church. As I see it, the responsibility of staying separate lies with the state. They must be the ones that ensure laws are not being made that infringe on personal consience.

    Now from a church perspective, I believe we must use our freedom wisely. We are to preach the gospel of Jesus, not of partisanship. Christians that know Jesus and understand his life and his ministry will vote accordingly. But when the church starts getting specific about politics, it encourages people to not use the brain that God gave them to educatte themselves on voting issues. It suggests that they should instead rely on the church to make their voting decisions for them. This is a formula for the kind of corruption we have seen over the last several years where churches start aligning themselves with policies that go directly against the teachings of Christ.

  6. Brian Vistaunet says:

    Of course they can deny him mass. They are a free to do as they believe. I am also free to do as I believe and have nothing to do with a church that behaved like that.

    From a legal perspective, I think for the state to force churches steer completely clear of any politically based action would have to represent a state infringement on the church. As I see it, the responsibility of staying separate lies with the state. They must be the ones that ensure laws are not being made that infringe on personal consience.

    Now from a church perspective, I believe we must use our freedom wisely. We are to preach the gospel of Jesus, not of partisanship. Christians that know Jesus and understand his life and his ministry will vote accordingly. But when the church starts getting specific about politics, it encourages people to not use the brain that God gave them to educatte themselves on voting issues. It suggests that they should instead rely on the church to make their voting decisions for them. This is a formula for the kind of corruption we have seen over the last several years where churches start aligning themselves with policies that go directly against the teachings of Christ.

  7. Fabian Carballo says:

    Why am I not surprised? This happens all the time across all faiths. I am glad that revoking tax-exemption is something that can be used to level with this sort of institutional bullying of freedom of speech. But, church members of all of faiths should also scrutinize their leaders and hold their clergy accountable at all times. It is tragic when one cleric ruins the reputation of an entire body of believers because of an outlandish attempt to politicize the pulpit.

  8. Fabian Carballo says:

    Why am I not surprised? This happens all the time across all faiths. I am glad that revoking tax-exemption is something that can be used to level with this sort of institutional bullying of freedom of speech. But, church members of all of faiths should also scrutinize their leaders and hold their clergy accountable at all times. It is tragic when one cleric ruins the reputation of an entire body of believers because of an outlandish attempt to politicize the pulpit.

 
 
%d bloggers like this: