The Church-State Divide: Religious Folks Have to Choose

10/13/2006 12:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I nearly joined the Christian Coalition last year after the Season of Light celebration at my kids' school. They were singing Don Maclean's "American Pie" (not exactly O Little Town of Bethlehem) and the teachers made them change the lyrics from "if the Bible tells you so" to "everybody tells you so." Apparently the mere mention of the word "Bible" was deemed potentially offensive.

Hmmm. Maybe the conservative Christians really are right about secularism run amok, I thought. And what about all those stories about kids being told not to read the bible in cafeterias?

Yes there are those cases. But what this weeks important series on government treatment of religion in the New York Times shows is that for every case of a person of faith being discriminated against there's several more of local or federal government giving religious entities special treatment.

Rather than picking over yet another controversial crèche scene, the Times looked at the various ways that religious organizations are given PREFERENCE over the non religious. Religious hospitals don't have to abide by labor laws; churches can fire people for being too old without being accused of age discrimination; or they can trample through zoning laws designed protect the environment. Most significant, religious entitties of all sorst -- including well heeled ones -- get enormous tax breaks not available to for profits or even, in some cases, to secular non-profits.

I have to admit; I didn't always feel as outraged by the series as I was supposed to. If the Methodists want to make their preacher retire at 70, I feel like that's not a great crime, especially since the remedy - regulating employment practices of religion could be worse. So I didn't come away thinking that there's been a horrible erosion of separation of church and state. Instead, I came away thinking that our country dramatically favors religion in its laws, and that's probably fine. Government regulation of religion would invariably lead to oppression so it makes to err on the side of leaving religion alone.

But at a minimum, supporters of religion having a special place can't have it both ways: we cant take special tax breaks, zoning rules and exemptions and then claim we're discriminated against. Religious folks will have to choose between the tax breaks and the persecution complex.