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Issues about separation of church and state are important

During most election seasons, a note usually comes from our national offices clarifying what churches can and cannot talk about.

Mike Denton - Conference Minister

The guidelines are pretty straightforward. In order to maintain tax exempt status through the IRS, churches can’t advocate for one particular candidate or another.

I know some churches do it anyway but, as the law currently stands a church can lose their tax exempt status if they do this. Let me say just a bit more.

For churches with their own 501(c)3 status, they only risk their status.

However, for denominationally related churches that use the tax exempt status of their denomination, the denomination’s tax exempt status as well as all the churches and ministries that share that status could be at risk.

The implications for many of the great programs that serve a lot of people could be dire if they had to add taxes into their other expenses.

However, what frequently creates misunderstanding is that churches can legally speak out about an issue that is on the ballot, a governmental decision, or a social issue without there being legal implications.

In fact, many would say that this is a requirement of our baptismal promises and, for clergy, an expectation of our ordination vows.


During times of national unrest—and this is the most I remember during my lifetime—this frequently leads to conflict in churches as pastors and members speak out or act up.

The concern is usually voiced the same way: that the church or the pastor have become “too political.”

Most frequently this comes up when the position being espoused is one the person making the “too political” statement disagrees with but not always.

Some folks are looking for a refuge where they don’t have to think or hear about more troubling things in their already troubled lives. Others are hoping the church will sort of be a specialist on spiritual matters and controversial issues are dealt with somewhere else.

Some want the church to be a safe place for everyone to such a degree that they want it to always be neutral ground. I understand even though I disagree.

The idea of the separation of church and state is part of the US social contract and was intended to prevent there from being a state religion as well as prevent the state from interfering in religion.

By this doctrine, the issue isn’t as much about religion talking about the state as preventing the state from espousing or controlling religion. Our tax exemption being tied to our refraining from partisan endorsements for a particular candidate or party came later.

Over time, it was the culture or preference of some churches to decide not to take positions on social or other politicized issues.

Over time, a culture of separating church and state emerged that went far beyond any legal or tax exemption requirements.

The laws around the separation of church and state are important and healthy at their root.

The overreaching, conflict avoidant, pop-law understanding of the separation of church and state is the problem.

The separation of church and state is worth defending. It’s also our obligation to resist the idea that there should be a separation of church and life.

Micah 6:8 asks us “...what does the Lord require of (us) but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?”

How can we do any of these things without speaking out, protesting, serving, worshipping and praying tangling altogether?

This is what faith is. This is what life is. This is what church is.


Copyright © February 2017 Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ News


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