Churches hold political events, with pastors endorsing candidates and exhorting their members to vote a certain way (though they may risk their tax-exempt status in doing so). The federal government is preparing to compel all employers — including Catholic organizations that purchase health insurance for their employees — to pay for endorsements in the policies covering contraception of various kinds, which is anathema to the church (though not to all of its followers). Maryland has passed a law permitting same-sex marriages, though this is clearly prohibited by many religions. In San Francisco last year there was a proposal to ban the circumcision of babies, a practice in Judaism that is perhaps the oldest practice of that religion still in wide use, and a practice in Islam as well. The proposed law failed due to concern about interfering in religious practices.
What to make of all of this? "Separation of church and state" is a nice phrase. But in practice, church and state are intertwined in many ways, and clashes are bound to occur. The freedom to believe something seems to be quite broad; the freedom to carry out what you believe, however, is more limited.
We have a complex society. It is hard to make rules that satisfy everyone. Justice Stewart famously said of pornography that while he had trouble defining it, he knew it when he saw it. The lines we establish to create appropriate separation of church and state are hard to draw, and we all have our own gut reactions to when the wall is breached and when it isn't.
Let us turn down the rhetoric and try to understand each others' sensitivities. For me, the rule should be that the government should make essentially secular decisions, in the light of what is best for the population, without cramming religious dogma down a citizen's throat. A presidential candidate who says that his religion is so important to him that he will base his executive decisions, budget and policies on his religious beliefs is campaigning for a particular religion, and this is offensive to me. A candidate who has personal religious beliefs that are important to him, but which he does not desire to foist upon the population at large, is more appealing.
Thus, although John F. Kennedy was wrong when he advocated that the separation of church and state should be "absolute," I stand with Kennedy's ideal of not permitting his religious beliefs to interfere with (and indeed, rule) his public policy objectives and pronouncements.
Irwin E. Weiss is an attorney in Towson. His email is email@example.com.