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Public Administration and Institutions That Commit Child Abuse or Neglect: Part 3 – Reinforcing the Separation of Church and State

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
June 22, 2023

This column is the third in a series on a painful and disturbing topic: child abuse and neglect. The focus is on the unfolding crisis for U.S. public administration systems dealing with institutions that have become systematic sources of child abuse and neglect (the first column is here and the second column is here). Because institutions tied to religion have committed corporate malfeasance related to child abuse and neglect, this column considers how to reinforce the separation of church and state so that such institutions cannot use their religious purpose to shield themselves from accountability.

The principle of the separation of church and state embedded in the U.S. Constitution often is misconstrued. The only direct reference to this principle is in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” There is an implicit reference in the subsequent guarantee of free speech but that guarantee, as I argue below, originally was intended for individuals not institutions. First and foremost, the concern embodied in the Constitution was that the state should not impose a religion on the people, as had occurred many times in Europe. I have a direct, personal connection to those who fled the persecution under a state religion (in this case, the oppression of the Church of England) in the form of my ancestor Peter Browne who stepped off the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.

The reference in the Constitution to not prohibiting the free exercise of religion could be interpreted as giving religious institutions nearly free reign in the public square. I argue that not only is that entirely false but also extremely dangerous for American democracy. The original intent in the Constitution was that people with religious sentiments should be free to worship without interference—meaning read their religious texts, found and attend their churches, temples and mosques and pray in specific settings such as at home. That freedom to be religious is different from the freedom to actively shape public policy on the basis of religious belief through the organized, corporate efforts of a specific religious institution like the Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention.

What we are witnessing in the present moment is a highly organized effort by a distinct religious minority to transform public policies in ways that harm the inalienable rights of the majority. In other words, these organized efforts to limit reproductive freedom, eliminate the civil rights of sexual minorities or block the health care needs of the gender non-conforming, are acts of sedition against the Constitution and the United States. Treasonous acts are not protected under the First Amendment and need to be dealt with firmly and not shielded from scrutiny by appealing to the separation of church and state.

What about the potential protection under the guarantee of freedom of speech? Are religious Americans not entitled to speak their views in the public square? Of course they are. It is the organized, corporate lobbying efforts that I argue are not protected directly by the First Amendment. There so many examples of this distinction that I struggle to pick just one. Consider just for sake of argument the view held among conservative Christians that the spread of Islam is a direct threat to their world and therefore the U.S. Government should suppress Muslims. The obvious ridiculousness of that position in the context of the history of state-backed oppression of reformed Christianity should be clearly evident.

What then should be done about religious institutions that cross the line into the public square and thereby undermine the necessary separation of church and state? The starting point for regulating this is to deny such institutions their tax exemptions at all levels of government. In other words, for a church to be tax exempt it must refrain from actively seeking to influence public policy. Churches simply cannot survive without their tax exemptions given the rapid decline in religious affiliation and participation among Americans today. So, effectively, the denial of a tax exemption is an institutional death penalty. In the case of churches that committed child abuse and neglect that corporate death penalty is a component of justice.

To circle back on the overall theme of this series of columns, we have numerous, large, powerful religion-connected corporations in the United States that have aided and abetted child abuse and neglect. These same corporations have lobbied for the appointment of federal judges and the passing of laws that harm the Constitution. All of this is entirely unacceptable. These corporate entities not only should be punished for this, but the separation of church and state should be reinforced so that religion cannot assume it will avoid scrutiny on the grounds of the First Amendment.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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2 Responses to Public Administration and Institutions That Commit Child Abuse or Neglect: Part 3 – Reinforcing the Separation of Church and State

  1. Darrell Moore Reply

    June 26, 2023 at 2:46 pm

    I agree with Mr. Devereux. I am a confessed Christian, but even I know that I cannot impose my belief on those who don’t want to hear it. History has proven what happens when absolute power is placed into the hands of religious zealots. The Mid-Atlantic Slave Trade was sanctioned by the Catholic Church, who later apologized for the atrocity, but only after entire generations of human beings were demeaned, tortured, killed. The Southern Baptist sympathized with the Confederacy. Need I say more?

    Reasonable people need to speak up and speak out! Silence isn’t an option.

  2. Robert A. Hunter Reply

    June 23, 2023 at 5:02 pm

    This series is very poignant and well articulated. Thank you.

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