State and Church

July 27, 1994|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — When the issue of separation between church and state is raised, it is usually in the context of controlling the extent to which the church is permitted to influence the state and the laws by which we live.

In Pompano Beach, Florida, an attorney is poised to seize the building, Sunday-morning offerings and other assets of a church in a case that should alarm constitutional scholars and others concerned about the excessive reach of government and its hostility to religious people who believe their faith compels them to apply that faith in the public arena.

The facts are these. New Covenant Church, a conservative Presbyterian body, sold some of its land a decade ago to a doctor, who subsequently opened an abortion clinic. Members of the church, who believe abortion is immoral and against God's will, began picketing the clinic. The ruling body of the church (known as a session) made it clear that the decision to picket was not officially sanctioned by the church and the demonstrators were acting on their own.

The pastor, George Callahan, allowed Operation Rescue to rent the building for one night to hold a rally. Some of those who attended the rally, including Mr. Callahan, conducted a sit-in at the abortion clinic on March 31, 1989. The clinic, assisted by the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, filed suit alleging that the defendants conspired to illegally blockade the clinic in violation of the patients' supposed constitutional right to abortion, to financially bankrupt the clinic and to physically intimidate and harass employees and patients. The court returned a judgment of $1 against the defendants.

But the NOW attorneys sued the church under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act -- RICO -- and won a judgment for $234,000 in attorney's fees. The clinic's lawyer agreed to settle for $200,000, but the church did not have that much cash on hand. So, this month the lawyer began the process of seizing the church building and its other assets, including Sunday-morning offerings. The judge agreed to delay the forfeiture of the church property if the church would find $210,000 (including interest should the judgment be upheld) and place it in an escrow account while it appeals his ruling.

Pastor Callahan called several churches around the country, and they lent him the money.

Even those who favor ''a woman's right to choose'' an abortion should be seriously concerned about a case that allows the state to confiscate the property of a church because a few members and the pastor decide to exercise what they regard as their moral obligation and their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

The civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement and numerous other often civilly disobedient protesters often found sustenance and a home in Catholic and Baptist churches. Had the RICO law been in effect during the boycotts, sit-ins and protests of the civil-rights era, black Baptist, Catholic and African Methodist Episcopal churches all over America could have been seized by angry white businessmen upset over the economic losses caused to their businesses by blacks who boycotted or blockaded because of segregation.

Remember the Berrigan brothers, two Catholic priests who protested the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons and have been involved in environmental concerns? And there was Rev. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Yale and an encourager of draft-card burning and draft evasion by young men. Protests included boycotts of the Dow Chemical Company for making napalm dropped on Vietnam. With RICO on the books in those years, the assets and buildings of Yale University might have been seized by lawyers seeking to shut down legitimate and constitutionally protected expression.

This growing trend to single out abortion and those who protest it because of religious convictions for special persecution and prosecution should disturb civil libertarians and those who supported the deeply held convictions of Vietnam and civil-rights demonstrators. What goes around, comes around, and if the government can order the seizure of a church simply because one uses the building for a rally that leads to a protest the government doesn't like, where is the end of this?

If church-state separation means anything, it ought to cut the other way when the state invades the church and declares there is no king but Caesar.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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