The Year That Was: Major Church-State Developments From 2012

Here are some major church-state stories from the past 12 months.

The end of the year is a time for lists. You’re probably seeing a lot of them – “25 Best Books of 2012,” “10 Overlooked Movies,” “What’s Hot and What’s Not” or whatever.

Along those lines, here’s a list of the Top Ten Church-State Stories from 2012 (listed in no particular order):

Supreme Court upholds ‘ministerial exception’: In a closely watched case dealing with employment rights, the Supreme Court in January granted religious groups the power to ignore anti-discrimination laws in certain situations. The narrow decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dealt mainly with clergy and left unanswered questions about the rights of non-ministerial employees in religious settings.

Kentucky legislators approve tax support for fundamentalist ‘Ark Park’: Continuing a trend of offering tax support to creationist-themed tourist attractions, Kentucky lawmakers engineered $40 million in tax incentives to a theme park based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. The park is scheduled to include a 500-foot-by-75-foot wooden ark, live animals, a walled city modeled on those found in ancient times, a children’s interactive play area, a replica of the Tower of Babel with exhibits, a 500-seat “5-D” special-effects theater, an aviary and a replica of a first-century Middle Eastern village. Scientists and advocates of church-state separation criticized the decision to give public support to an enterprise promoting fundamentalist ideology. Despite the aid package, the park remains on the drawing board, as private fund-raising by the park’s sponsor, Answers in Genesis, hasn’t met expectations.

The White House attempts to clarify the ‘faith-based’ initiative – sort of: In April, President Barack Obama issued a “guidance” designed to clarify some of the issues surrounding his version of the “faith-based” initiative. Unfortunately, it fell short of those goals. The 50-page guidance requires faith-based agencies that operate government-subsidized social services to generally exclude religion from publicly funded activities and to provide help to all who need it regardless of their beliefs about religion. But it also allows these agencies to offer publicly funded services in locations festooned with religious art, icons and scripture passages, allows the agencies to invite clients to attend privately funded religious events and does not require separate accounts for public and private funds. Most disappointingly, the document failed to discuss the pressing issue of religious discrimination in tax-funded faith-based programs. “This guidance makes some significant improvements to the Bush faith-based initiative, but it falls far short of what it ought to do,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “This fails to fully protect the interests of Americans who need help from their government or the rights of taxpayers who don’t want their money subsidizing religion.”

Religious Right ‘Christian nation’ propagandist David Barton implodes. Texas Religious Right historical revisionist David Barton finally met his match this year. Barton has been peddling bogus “Christian nation” views of U.S. history since at least the early 1990s, mainly through self-published books and DVDs. In 2012, he got a shot at the big time when Thomas Nelson, a publishing firm that produces a lot of evangelical works, agreed to publish a Barton tome called The Jefferson Lies. The book immediately came under fire from a group of conservative Christian professors, led by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College. Throckmorton, Coulter and others documented the tome’s many errors – most of which related to Barton’s distortions of Thomas Jefferson’s views on church-state separation and his personal religious views. Thomas Nelson subsequently withdrew the tome.

Americans United wins key victories against government-sponsored prayer: In 2012, Americans United won several important legal victories against official prayer before meetings of government bodies. A federal appeals court struck down recitation of such prayers in Forsyth County, N.C., and similar practices of official prayer also fell in Sussex County, Del., and Greece, N.Y.

Louisiana’s voucher program challenged in court: Prodded by Gov. Bobby Jindal, legislators in Louisiana approved a wide-ranging private school voucher plan. Media reports indicated that many of the schools taking part are fundamentalist academies or financially ailing Roman Catholic institutions. Unfortunately, Louisiana’s constitution was altered in the 1970s and no longer strongly supports church-state separation. Parents and teachers’ unions challenged the plan in court on other grounds and won a victory in state court. There will be an appeal, but for now the first round goes to voucher foes.

Anti-Islam measures fail in court: Oklahoma voters approved a state constitutional amendment to ban Islamic law in the Sooner State, a move that was widely interpreted as a mean-spirited exercise in Islamophobia. The matter was challenged in court, and in 2012 a federal appeals court declared the amendment null and void. In Tennessee, efforts to prevent a Muslim group from building a mosque also failed. After years of litigation, harassment and threats, the mosque opened in August.

Illegal pulpit endorsements reach new levels: A record number of pastors openly violated federal law and endorsed candidates from the pulpit this year. Many of the endorsements were in conservative churches and were designed to help Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. A number of Catholic bishops joined the crusade, issuing letters that in some cases went so far as to warn church members that failing to vote for anti-abortion, anti-gay candidates could damn their eternal souls to hell. Despite this wave of blatant law-breaking, the Internal Revenue Service appeared to be sitting on the sidelines.

Religious conservatives launch new attack on birth control: Religious Right organizations and the Catholic bishops filed a slew of lawsuits designed to nullify a regulation from the Obama administration that requires most employers in the nation to contract with insurance companies that provide no-cost birth control. Although houses of worship are exempt from the mandate, the Religious Right and the bishops say that doesn’t go far enough and are demanding a broad “conscience objection” that would permit virtually any employer to deny his or her employees access to birth control. A number of courts have ruled on the matter, resulting in split decisions. The question seemed destined to land in the Supreme Court.

Religious Right dealt severe blow on Election Day: Religious Right groups and their allies in the Roman Catholic hierarchy went over the top to elect Mitt Romney and other Republicans on Election Day and failed miserably. Obama won re-election easily, and Democrats not only retained control of the Senate, they gained seats. In addition, marriage equality was approved in three states, and Minnesota voters turned back an effort to add a provision barring same-sex marriage to the state constitution. Voters in Florida also rejected a gambit – spearheaded largely by the Catholic bishops – to strip the strong church-state separation provisions from the state constitution.  

It was a busy year. I suspect 2013 is going to be just as action-packed, so stay involved and visit au.org for regular updates. Happy New Year!

P.S. "The Wall of Separation" will be on hiatus until Jan. 2.