One of the things that supposedly distinguish the western style secular democracies from the more authoritarian regimes found in much of the world is freedom of religion. If the official positions of the governments of countries like the united states were to be taken at face value, one would have to assume that not only are people in these nations free to hold and practice whatever religious beliefs they like, but the state is barred from interfering in matters of religion. This is, however, not at all the case.
There is no wall of separation between church and state in the united states or any other country. Just as governments have taken it upon themselves to regulate just about every other area of people’s lives, intervention in religious life is standard procedure for those who rule us. And there is little real opposition to such interference. Left and right often differ as to where and how the state should intervene in religious affairs, but virtually everybody who believes in the political system supports this mixing of state and church in some fashion.
While governments arguably discriminate against religions in some ways, such as when they refuse to fund religious schools or social service agencies while giving money to other private, but secular, ones, the predominant effect of most actions by courts, legislatures, and other public officials that concern religion is to actively promote and favor it. Laws and institutions regularly grant privileges to religious groups and individuals, whether by freeing them of obligations required of those that are secular or by allowing them to engage in activities that would be prohibited if those taking part in them were doing so for non-religious reasons. The common theme in all such cases is that political institutions, the first amendment notwithstanding, value religious belief over secular values.
In alaska, one example of the preferential treatment of religious institutions and practitioners is the state law whereby the homes of priests, bishops, rabbis, and other religious officials are exempt from property taxes. After the municipality of Anchorage changed its interpretation of this law and decided to start taxing the homes of teachers in religious schools, a well-connected conservative (and wealthy) church was able to get an amendment to the law passed barring the city from doing so. The Anchorage baptist temple called attempts by the city to tax their teachers’ homes as “religious discrimination.” This is nonsense, since teachers in non-religious non-profit schools are not allowed to live tax-free.
The ACLU challenged the amended law, considering it discrimination in favor of religion. But neither the ACLU nor most other critics of the amendment were willing to challenge the rest of the statute, which grants privileges to clergy which are denied to private secular individuals. In fact, the Anchorage Daily News, which opposed the church-sponsored amendment, editorialized that, “The law also exempts church-owned housing for ordained ministers. That’s a defensible exemption, since ministers devote their lives to religion, and it’s fairly common for churches to provide ministers with housing to compensate them for working long hours at relatively low pay. But extending the tax break to lodging for teachers who don’t have formal religious credentials is stretching too far.” In other words, people who devote their lives to religious ministry are entitled to privileges not due others who work long hours for low pay in secular jobs. The conservative Anchorage baptist temple, and the liberal Daily News and ACLU all agree on this.
Besides favoring churches economically through tax breaks, governments make other exceptions for church members that they deny to others. For instance, when one applies for conscientious objector status to avoid military servitude, it is virtually impossible to get it unless one’s opposition to war is part of their religious beliefs. An atheist who opposes war simply because they loathe killing is unlikely to be allowed to legally refuse to be drafted, unlike a mennonite.
Similarly, the supreme court ruled this year that members of a religious congregation in new mexico may legally drink hoasca tea, an hallucinogen illegal for everyone else. A number of american states also allow the use of peyote by members of a certain church, but criminalize its use by anyone else. Religious privilege trumps even the war on drugs, so that the religious can legally get high, while secular marijuana growers can still end up in federal prison.
Even in completely mundane matters, like the dress code policies of both public and private entities, the government often intervenes on the side of religious believers. In numerous situations, courts and other public officials have allowed people to wear banned clothing or headgear, or grow beards, in violation of an institution’s dress or appearance code because they did so for religious reasons. In none of these cases were the rules thrown out for everyone; only the religious were given that privilege, while an agnostic who simply liked to dress differently could still have been fired or barred by the businesses or agencies concerned.
And then there are the public schools, where a kid can be disciplined for having a toy gun, or a nail clipper, or even for pointing a piece of food at another kid as a mock weapon, while other students are allowed to carry daggers for “religious reasons.”
I could go on and on, but the point is clear: beliefs and actions motivated by religious sentiment are given different standing from those based on secular convictions or simple personal preference. This isn’t to say that every time someone whines or files a lawsuit about religious “discrimination” they win, or that the state consistently sides with religious belief in all cases. For instance, except in massachusetts, it is just as illegal for churches that wish to do so to marry two people of the same sex as it is for secular officials. But it is clear that the state interferes with religion, usually to its benefit.
Needless to say, it doesn’t upset this anarchist that some are able to escape taxation, or avoid some stupid rule mandating how one dresses, or use recreational drugs, or carry weapons. More power to them. I would love to see all taxes, all drug and gun laws, all restrictions on appearance, all the public schools—in fact, all forms of plunder, authority, and control—eliminated so that we could all keep what we produce, smoke or swallow whatever we want, dress or undress as we see fit, and carry the weapons we choose. But people should be treated as individuals, worthy of fair treatment, whatever their religious faith or lack thereof. Modifying oppressive institutions so that only some are able to benefit, and then only if they can justify their practices as part of a ritual devotion to some higher power, is not going to get us any closer to a world free of power and intolerance.