The Need for a separation of church and state

Churches in this country get away with a lot of stuff simply because government is afraid to challenge them on it. For instance, in no reasonable sense of the term should Focus on the Family or Pat Robertson's "ministry" or D. J. Kennedy's Coral Ridge ministry (which I give the bird every time I pass it on Federal Highway) any of the other right-wing fundie groups be considered politically neutral and recieve tax exemptions.

But too often, church groups are given leeway because of what they offer politically--bloc votes on single issues that allow politicians to rape and pillage the treasury while demonizing minority groups. And the church groups get away with crap until they get called out on it in public. For instance, remember Bethany Christian Services? You probably don't. They're the Mississippi adoption agency that refused to allow Catholics to adopt because they didn't fit in with the agency's "statement of faith." If they'd been a wholly private organization, I'd have less of a problem with it--in short, I'd look at them as I look at any other ignorant and bigoted organization. But they were taking state money, and they'd been doing so for quite some time before the story broke. Google has a link to an article saying they've changed their policy, but the link is broken--I'd be interested to see if they've actually accepted Catholic couples as adoptive parents yet, or if the policy change was, as I suspect, a smoke screen to keep the money coming.

I find it amusing that so many churches are eager to link themselves to government, and that when they do, they cite a flawed reading of the US Constitution to do so, instead of turning to their own seminal document. In Matthew 22:21, undoubtedly one of the most recognized scriptures of the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." One particularly egregious example of a right-winger ignoring this command is that of Kent Hovind, aka Dr. Dino, who recently pled not guilty to charges of tax fraud, claiming that "he is employed by God and has no income or property because everything he owns belongs to God." Funny, Jesus didn't seem to support a clerical tax exemption.

So what brings this on? You may have heard the story about the young man who died on a camping trip run by Back to Basics Military Academy, which was being run out of a church. Well, it turns out that the "academy" was operating illegally. And guess what? Public money was involved.

A military academy -- under scrutiny after one of its students died during a camping trip Saturday -- has been operating illegally out of a Lauderhill church, city officials said Tuesday. At the same time, the school accepted tens of thousands of dollars of state money to educate disabled students, state records show.

Back to Basics Military Academy does not have an occupational license or a special exception use permit to run a school out of the strip-mall church, which is a violation of city codes, said Planning and Zoning Director Earl Hahn.

It has, however, collected $86,760 in state money in the past year to help educate disabled students, according to the Florida Department of Education. State law requires schools to meet city building, fire and health codes to qualify for the money, but does not require them to submit documentation....

State officials say the school accepted $86,760 in state money in the past school year to educate 14 special-needs students. This year, it had accepted 24 disabled students but had yet to get the state money. The school serves grades 4-12.

The money is part of the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, which is meant to give parents options when public schools are not meeting their children's needs. Such students could have anything from a mild learning disability to severe physical and psychological handicaps.

Now, in the vast funding pie that is the Florida educational system, $86K is a pittance, but still, had this kid not died and necessitated an investigation, it's likely none of this would have come to light. But why was the "academy" eligible in the first place? It was renting space from a church (and the church was apparently breaking the law as well--zoning violations).

I think I've wandered a bit here. I don't have any proof that this group avoided scrutiny as long as it did because of its association with a church, and it's more than likely that a scam of this size simply went unnoticed because it was small time. But stories like the ones I mentioned earlier are more and more common--the North Carolina church that kicked out its Democratic members in 2004 springs immediately to mind.

Jehovah's Witnesses--I come back to them so often, don't I? :)--take the other extreme, refusing to involve themselves in politics in the slightest, claiming neutrality to earthly governments and allegiance to the kingdom of God. That's a foolish way to be as well, I think--we live in this world, and have a duty to be involved in the running of it, regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof. And I'm not demanding that religious people who are involved politically check their religions at the door--that's equally foolish. I've been religious; I know how it can permeate every aspect of your being.

But there has to be a separation between the motives of individual churches and the workings of government, if for no other reason than because churches have their own motives, and to force them upon those with different beliefs based on nothing more than your interpretation of a centuries old book (in the best of cases) goes against one of Jesus's greatest commands, which was to "love your neighbor as yourself." Those church leaders like the ones I mentioned above could stand to go back and look at the basics of Christianity, I think.

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