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?