Church-state relationships in a pluralistic society

Recently, two Baptist-affiliated universities filed a federal lawsuit against the Obama Administration.  Houston Baptist University and East Texas Baptist University are challenging the constitutionality of the controversial “contraception mandate” of the Affordable Care Act (aka “ObamaCare”) requiring most health care plans to cover—with no co-pay—Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods.  In a press release, the presidents of these Texas schools explained that their “religious convictions prevent them from providing their employees with access to abortion-causing drugs” and that the lawsuit “aims to preserve their religious liberty and the right to carry out their missions free from coercion.”

These Baptist universities are not the first to file a lawsuit.  Rather, their suit marks the 32nd challenge to the mandate.  Nor are they the first Baptist-affiliated institution to do so.  Back in February, Louisiana College filed one of the first lawsuits challenging the mandate on religious freedom grounds.  However, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist are the first to appeal extensively to the Baptist tradition when making their case against the mandate.

Eric Rassabach of The Becket Fund, the group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the universities, pointed out in the press release: “Baptists in America, by virtue of their history, are particularly sensitive to coercive government actions that infringe on religious liberty.”  Citing Roger Williams’ persecution at the hands of the Puritans, Rassabach added, “We shouldn’t have to fight for that same right today.”

East Texas Baptist president Samuel Oliver also appealed to Baptist history and particularly the legacy of George W. Truett.  He stated, “Baptists have always advocated religious liberty, and religious liberty is what is at stake in this situation.”  As he did during his congressional testimony earlier this year, Oliver quoted Truett who famously remarked “A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor, and for his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else.”

Truett made this statement during a now historic sermon delivered on the steps of the United States capitol on May 16, 1920.  Immediately prior to making this statement, Truett preached: “the Baptist will whole-heartedly contend that his Catholic neighbor shall have his candles and incense and sanctus bell and rosary, and whatever else he wishes in the expression of his worship.”  Oliver’s repeated reference to Truett and the historical context of this quote begs the fun question: What Would Truett Do?

Clearly the presidents of East Texas Baptist and Houston Baptist believe they have a definitive answer to that question.  I’m far from convinced.  Why?  Because we do know what George Truett did not do.  While Truett was in Europe preaching to the troops during World War I, he did not voice his support for pacifists from peace churches who refused to pay federal taxes.  These pacifists rightly recognized that their tax dollars would be used to fund the war.

Federal courts have repeatedly rejected the religious liberty claims of war tax resisters.  Just two years ago, an Arizona federal court dismissed the claim of a Quaker who argued that the use of his income taxes toward military spending substantially burdened his religious freedom in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  These Texas Baptist schools are also making RFRA claims.

How is this contraception issue distinguishable from that settled war tax issue?  Moreover, how is health care coverage distinguishable from salary and other employee benefits?  Are the consciences of these Baptist institutions violated when an employee uses his or her paycheck to make a morally objectionable purchase or decision?  Is religious liberty really endangered when the government requires a Baptist university to contribute to a health care plan where religious convictions are only offended if an employee makes an independent decision to use a health plan to cover a medical treatment deemed morally objectionable?

These are not black and white issues.  Church-state relationships are indeed severely complex in our increasingly pluralistic society.  Together, we have to grapple with these tough issues and proceed carefully with an awareness of attempts to politicize these complex and developing issues for partisan purposes.  And, if we are going to trot out powerful quotes from beloved Baptists like George Truett, we ought to be willing to take seriously the entire witness of these prophets or religious liberty.  After all, Truett stood adamantly opposed to tax dollars—directly and indirectly—used to support religiously-affiliated schools.  He called his fellow Baptists clamoring for Caesar’s coin to “speedily repent of such inconsistent course, and go and sin no more!”

Aaron Weaver

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Aaron Weaver is a recent graduate of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he received a Ph.D. in Religion, Politics & Society. He blogs at www.thebigdaddyweave.com and is the author of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).

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