"Drawing the Line Between Church and State"

August 17, 2008, Romans 13:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen

Every summer around the 4th of July I preach a sermon about the relationship between church and state. This year my schedule got a little thrown off, so I'm getting to this issue a month late. I have been fascinated by this topic for years. And it seems that there are always new situations that call for us, as Christians and as Americans, to define and clarify how we are to live. There are times when being a Christian is in conflict with being an American. You may remember a few years ago there was a controversy over whether the words "under God" in the pledge to the flag were an establishment of religion by a public school and therefore a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Another case that received attention here in Wisconsin a few years ago was whether it was appropriate to require people who drive buggies drawn by horses on state roads to place a bright sign on the vehicle to indicate that it moves slowly. While this initiative was motivated by keeping motorists and buggy drivers safe, the brightness of the emblems was contrary to the religious practices of the sect of Christians who drive most of the buggies.

I find issues like this fascinating because they force two good things to compete against each other. On the one hand, we can all agree that safety for people on our state's roads is a worthy goal. On the other, we also affirm that people should be free to practice their religious faith as they see fit, with neither hindrance nor assistance, from the government. So the question in this case is where the line should be drawn between religious freedom and public safety.

Thomas Jefferson is the one of our nation's founding leaders who thought and wrote about the relationship between church and state. It was Jefferson who coined the term "a wall of separation" between church and state. While this phrase does not appear in the constitution or the Bill of Rights, it has guided the Supreme Court for more than two centuries as it has defined where and how the line between religion and government should be drawn. Jefferson was a radical proponent of religious freedom, which means he was willing to let religions whose beliefs were unpopular, or as I like to describe them "nutty" to practice their faiths as they best believed. In "Notes on Virginia" [1782] Jefferson wrote, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

I think Jefferson's statement gives us good criteria for how Americans should look at the place of religion in society. We can ask ourselves, "Am I physically or financially harmed by the religious practices of other people?" And, I believe, only when society is being physically or financially harmed, should government intervene to limit the free expression of religion. Still, it is hard to know where to draw the line.

In November of last year, a 14 year old boy in Washington State who suffered from leukemia refused a blood transfusion. He was a Jehovah's Witness and Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Bible forbids receiving blood from other people. The transfusion probably would have saved his life. There was a request to give this boy a transfusion against his will, however, a judge upheld his right to decide to refuse this medical procedure. Shortly after the judge's order, the boy died.

This case might sound similar to one that unfolded last March here in Wisconsin. On Easter Sunday Madelein Kara Neumann died of untreated diabetes. Her parents do not belong to a church. They believe that the Bible tells them that prayer is an appropriate treatment for illness. Shortly before Kara died her parents called 911, but before help could arrive, Madelein Kara Neumann died. Her parents were charged with second-degree reckless homicide. For a time Kara's three siblings were put in foster care. In July a judge ordered regular medical check ups for them.

In both of these cases young people died because their religious beliefs, or perhaps I should say their families' religious beliefs, prevented them from receiving routine medical attention. Could there be a bigger issue around the relationship between government and religion than life or death?

We talked about Kara's case at church with great passion at coffee hour. People were enraged that an 11 year old girl had died needlessly. Many of us wanted Kara's parents prosecuted to the full extent of the law! We overlooked something in our rush to judgment. Many of us were so angry about this case last spring, that we overlooked our grief and sadness. Kara's parents and her brothers and sister were broken-hearted that she had died. No one was "happy" about this, though many of us said things like, "I hope those people are happy now." We were so angry that we forgot to be sad. So as I talk about this case I want it clear that Kara's death is an occasion to grieve, though it may make you angry.

I am also curious about the nature of the crime the parents committed. What if they had taken Kara to the doctor and she misdiagnosed the diabetes, treated her for something else, and she died? Would the parents have broken the law then? What if they had taken her to the doctor and the steps she took were medically appropriate and Kara died anyway? Doctors are not perfect. Modern medicine is in many ways miraculous, but no one lives forever. What if Kara had been taken to an acupuncturist or an expert in herbal medicine? In some societies these are accepted responses to health issues. Could it be illegal, should it be illegal in the United States for parents to seek less widely trusted treatments for their children?

Here's something else to think about-by the way, this is one of those sermons where I expect response and discussion. I will be sorely disappointed if you all shake my hand this morning at 10:30 and simply say, "Good morning"-What if Kara had gotten better? Would her parents be criminals if they prayed for their daughter's health and their prayer was answered in a way that is obvious to one and all? You could look at this case this way: the parents committed a crime because their prayer was not answered. If Kara hadn't died they couldn't be guilty of second-degree reckless homicide, right?

Perhaps God should stand trial for second-degree reckless homicide. Would God get a court-appointed defense attorney?

Most of us put our trust in modern medicine when we, or our loved ones, get sick. The majority of people in the United States use traditional, trusted medical services. Mr. & Mrs. Neumann put their faith, not in modern medicine, but in God. Because they put their faith in God, Mr. & Mrs. Neumann stand accused of second-degree reckless homicide.

I'm in a room full of Christians this morning. And I'll add we are all observant, practicing Christians. Who else goes to church? We put our faith in God, don't we? We also, if we're honest, put our trust in modern medicine, and in the police and fire departments and in a lot of other institutions as well as God. Yes, I believe God will take care of me and my family, and ultimately everything my family needs comes from God, but I lock my door before I go to sleep at night. And I save money in the bank, which I also trust.

When Paul wrote to the Romans he was writing to a small group of a newly organized religion that was radical and widely misunderstood. They were threatened by lots of things, like poverty, but also by the first century equivalent of the Roman police department. Paul advised them to obey the civil authorities because ultimately all authority comes from God. In most cases, this is pretty good advice, especially to members of a vulnerable, misunderstood minority population. Paul is telling them not to call attention to themselves, "Be good and you'll be fine," he advises them.

Jesus gave a different answer to the question of how obedient one should be to civil authorities. Now you need to understand that Jesus was speaking in a different setting, to a different audience, and these jokers were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that could be considered seditious. Jesus avoids their trap by saying, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's." It's a brilliant rhetorical move on Jesus' part. They can't trap him and that's what people remember about this passage, how clever Jesus was. But look at what he said, he helps us draw lines for ourselves. His response indicates that we have responsibilities, or obligations, to the government, and to God. And I suppose we could add other causes that we're loyal to...our families, our employers, our friends, clubs that we belong to, maybe schools that we attended, even professional sports teams sometimes, I understand, command a certain level of loyalty and devotion. Usually these different affiliations do not cause any conflict, for example, one can be a faithful Christian, American, father and Packer fan at the same time, most of the time. But what about two years ago, when the Packers played the Bears on Christmas day? People had to choose and make compromises...It was hard for many people to balance their competing loyalties. It was hard to know where to draw the lines. [Bears 24-Packers 17.]

Where should the line be drawn between the Neumann family's right to practice their faith and the state's obligation to "promote the general welfare"? Personally, I believe the state of Wisconsin should not seek to prosecute the Neumanns. Kara's death is a tragedy, but I believe the right to practice one's faith forces people to make difficult choices. The Neumann's faith has its own integrity, and if we go back to Jefferson's words, their practicing their faith neither breaks my leg, nor picks my pocket. I do not believe any of us would want to live in a society that would be so restrictive of freedom that parents could never be in a position that the Neumanns found themselves in last March. In such a society, government would have all the authority to tend to our children, none of them would die from untreated diabetes, but none of them would be raised by their parents' beliefs and values. Sometimes we pay for freedom with our lives. And its never easy to know where to draw that line. In this case, I believe our state has crossed that line. I've had my say. I'll stick around after worship to listen to what you think.