A Philosopher's Blog

When is Religious Freedom Not Religious Freedom?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2012
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it is not, of course.

As part of the systematic attack on public education in Florida, Proposition 8 has been put on the ballot. While it is called the “religious freedom amendment” the reality is rather different. After all, religious freedom means the freedom to practice one’s faith without interference by the state and is already guaranteed by both the United States constitution and the Florida state constitution.  What the amendment explicitly does is remove the prohibition against funding sectarian institutions with public money. The exact wording is as follows:

Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution providing that no individual or entity may be denied, on the basis of religious identity or belief, governmental benefits, funding, or other support, except as required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and deleting the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

If the proposition passes, the Florida constitution (section 3 Article I) will read:

There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety. No individual or entity may be discriminated against or barred from receiving funding on the basis of religious identity or belief. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.

While the proposition is being sold as being a matter of religious freedom, the reality of the matter is clearly revealed by Florida Representative Stephen Precourt. He regards education as a marketplace and contends that “they shouldn’t be telling a group that just because you’re faith-based organization you shouldn’t be participating in the market.”

I am, of course, for religious freedom. However, religious freedom is already adequately protecting by the existing laws and this proposition does nothing to expand religious freedom. Rather, as Precourt indicates, its main purpose seems to be to allow public money to fund private religious schools. Naturally, it also would allow public money to be given to any sectarian institution. On the face of it, this would allow public funds to be used for the construction of a new church, synagogue or mosque.

I am opposed to this on the following grounds.

First, the people of Florida have repeatedly been told that the state budget must be cut because of the lack of funds. For example, the public education system has seen widespread and deep cuts. It would certainly be inconsistent to be cutting the budget in so many areas while proposing what amounts to public funding for sectarian groups. Naturally, the proposition does not specify that money will be provided, but it would allow sectarian groups access to public money that is apparently in such short supply. Given the existing budget cuts, this is hardly something we can afford.

Second, as Precourt has indicated, the actual purpose of the proposition is to allow public money to fund private sectarian schools. It seems reasonable to infer that there are already plans to direct education funds from public schools to these private sectarian schools. If this occurs, this would do additional damage to the already weakened public education system. This would, of course, be detrimental to society. After all, as Jefferson and other founders argued, a public education system is a foundation of democracy.

Third, there is the obvious concern that certain sectarian groups will be able to avail themselves of the opportunity afforded by this proposition while others will not. For example, consider the chances that a Christian school will be funded and then consider the chances that a Islamic school or an atheist school will be funded. As such, there are legitimate concerns that the proposition would result in the state supporting specific sectarian groups at the expense of others, which would certainly be a problem.

Proponents of the proposition contend that it is necessary because sectarian organizations are currently being discriminated against on the basis of their being sectarian rather than secular. I have two responses.

First, sectarian organizations currently receive state funds to support their secular public programs. As such, when sectarian groups are engaged in the secular sector, they are as entitled as any other group to public funding. It hardly seems unjust or discrimination to not fund the specific sectarian operations that are not in the secular and public realm.

Second, sectarian groups do get treated with discrimination. However, it is discrimination in their favor. To be specific, sectarian organizations benefit from being tax exempt, at least in certain areas. This, it could be argued, would counter any alleged discrimination when it comes to public funds. After all, if sectarian organizations are content to not pay taxes in regards to the sectarian aspects of their operations, then they should hardly expect the state to help fund those sectarian operations.

As such, I am voting against proposition 8 and I would recommend that you do so as well. Assuming, of course, you can vote in Florida.

Enhanced by Zemanta
About these ads

19 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. T. J. Babson said, on September 26, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Are you opposed to students getting Pell grants to go to Notre Dame? Are you opposed to Georgetown getting federal research $$? Can you provide a guiding principle here? Or is the only principle to protect the teachers’ union at all costs?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 27, 2012 at 7:16 pm

      I am not.

      I actually present the principle in the body of the post:

      “First, sectarian organizations currently receive state funds to support their secular public programs. As such, when sectarian groups are engaged in the secular sector, they are as entitled as any other group to public funding. It hardly seems unjust or discrimination to not fund the specific sectarian operations that are not in the secular and public realm.”

      Notre Dame is connected to the Catholic Church, but it is not a sectarian school. Rather, it operates within the secular realm. My concern is with public money going to explicitly sectarian schools (that is, religious schools rather than secular sector schools with a religious affiliation, like Notre Dame).

      I have never endorsed protecting the teachers’ union at all costs. I support the union for practical and moral reasons. If the union acts in ways contrary to my ethics, I would then criticize them. If the union acted in ways that significantly violated my moral principles, I would leave the union and oppose it.

      While I seem to sometimes be cast as some sort of self serving villain, I do not think that seems to be a fair characterization. After all, the villainous traits (such as being a deceitful sophist, being driven not by principle but a desire to compete, possessing a desire to protect my group at all costs and so on) I am alleged to possess would serve me far better and more profitably elsewhere. I would be a foolish villain indeed to work for relatively low pay in education, to help people when I can without compensation, and so on when I could be making far more money and living a selfish life in greater luxury. But perhaps you regard me as both a fool and a knave? :)

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 27, 2012 at 8:23 pm

        Hardly a fool and a knave–but too doctrinaire. I am waiting for a dangerous truth, one that would raise an eyebrow at DNC headquarters :-)

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 27, 2012 at 8:31 pm

        Notre Dame is clearly a sectarian school, namely Roman Catholic.

        Are you claiming that the Florida law would allow money to flow to institutions that would not admit persons of different faiths? A Catholic school that would not admit protestants, for example?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 28, 2012 at 6:39 am

          Notre Dame is affiliated with the Catholic Church, but it operates within the secular realm as a privately owned public institution.

          You do raise a point well worth considering, namely how do we distinguish between sectarian and secular institutions. While there are clear divisions (my church is sectarian, my public university is secular) there are areas where it gets less clear. However, there seems to be a clear distinction between Notre Dame getting federal financial aid and a religious school run directly by a church. In the case of Florida, the intent behind the law is to allow the funding of explicitly religious schools that would normally not be eligible for public funds.

          Interestingly, the Catholic Church recently made the argument that they should be exempt from the laws requiring employers to cover birth control-even in the case of their secular public sector operations (schools and hospitals). In that case I argued that if they operate in the secular realm as secular institutions, they have to operate under the same rules as everyone else. This, of course, requires me to accept that when they operate as secular institutions they are also thus equally eligible for public funding. But, if the church wishes to argue that these institutions fall in the sectarian realm and thus need not follow the laws, then it would follow that they should be treated that way consistently. That is, no public funding.

          So, my principle would be that when an institution is secular and falls under the secular laws, then it is eligible for public funds (assuming it otherwise qualifies) even if it is affiliated with a sectarian group. However, if the institution is claimed to be sectarian and to not fall under the secular laws, then it would thus be ineligible.

          Naturally one obvious blunt instrument solution would be to simply treat anything associated with a sectarian organization as sectarian and just deny them all public funds while allowing them all the benefits of the religious status. So, for example, Notre Dame could be tax-exempt but no student would be eligible for federal aid. Given the value of the private universities such as Notre Dame, I would be inclined to oppose such a move. After all, schools like Notre Dame have consistently served the public good and have operated as privately owned public institutions. Notre Dame is, specifically, a top tier school in academics.

          Interesting question. While public institutions cannot discriminate, religious institutions get an exemption (for example, the Catholic Church is allowed to have only men as priests). The law does not specify that the public funds come with specific non-discrimination requirements. So, it certainly seems possible that public funds could be given to institutions that discriminate based on faith. Of course, a lawyer who specializes in Florida law would be able to give a better answer on what impact the law would have in this regard.

      • WTP said, on September 28, 2012 at 10:35 am

        While I seem to sometimes be cast as some sort of self serving villain Don’t think you’ve been cast as a villain. A useful innocent perhaps. the villainous traits … I am alleged to possess would serve me far better and more profitably elsewhere. That’s assuming you could survive in a world of villainy. I’m sure you’ve made a much wiser choice.

        While 50,000,000 Elvis fans can be wrong, does it not give you some pause as to why you feel you are perceived this way? It appears to me that possibly throughout life you’ve been over-exposed (like most of us) to the politically correct view point that leftist ideas are the future, are held by the “smart set”, etc. They also feed the ego of those who do not, or as yet do not, function in the real world of risk/reward/failure, trial/error, and the law of unintended consequences. They’re also more likely to get you laid, so hence the preponderance of these ideas. So the tendency is to adopt a philosophy or set of philosophies that make one feel good and then use logic and reason to build even the most stilted scaffolding to support it. You see the world as you think it should be and ask “why not”. But the world is the way it is. Only when you understand the world the way it is can you develop viable actions for dealing with it. Trying to shoe-horn a philosophy through argument with out testing these ideas, or what are really just hypotheses, in real world experience leads to disaster.

        Yes, I know you’re not talking to me. It’s a rhetorical post.

  2. WTP said, on September 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Second, sectarian groups do get treated with discrimination. However, it is discrimination in their favor. To be specific, sectarian organizations benefit from being tax exempt, at least in certain areas

    Ignoring the fact that non-sectarian groups also benefit from being tax exempt in the same areas. Sooo, no discrimination in their favor.

  3. Nal said, on September 26, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    WTP:

    Ignoring the fact that non-sectarian groups also benefit from being tax exempt in the same areas.

    Not quite. There is the Topic 417 – Earnings for Clergy that exempts a housing “allowance from gross income to the extent it is used to pay expenses in providing a home.”

    Sweet deal.

    • WTP said, on September 26, 2012 at 9:16 pm

      Nal,
      Far be it from me to pull a Mike and argue that the topic was sectarian and non-sectarian organizations, not their employees. But that would be weak and cause me at least a whiff of shame. However, I am curious and perhaps you may know…if I have a live-in maid or such, would her treatment in regard to living expenses be different than that of clergy occupying a rectory or monks, nuns, etc. in a monastery?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 27, 2012 at 6:08 am

      Yet another study was done on the tax exemptions granted to religious groups (and their members). The study indicates that the exemptions add up to about $71 billion nationally per year.

      Some examples:
      ” States bypass an estimated $26.2 billion per year by not requiring religious institutions to pay property taxes.
      • Capital gains tax exemptions for religious institutions may be as much as $41 million a year.
      • U.S. clergy may claim as much as $1.2 billion in tax exemptions annually via the parsonage allowance.”

      It must be noted that the study was published in Free Inquiry, which is a “nontheist” publication. This means that the possibility of bias should be duly considered. However, the matter is an objective and can be checked by examining the data. Naturally, even if the specific numbers are questioned, the important fact is that religious institutions enjoy tax exemptions that are denied to non-sectarian organizations. Naturally, some secular groups do get tax breaks and work tax loopholes. However, they do not such breaks simply by being secular institutions and religious groups can avail themselves of the same tax breaks and loopholes (for example, by being a non-profit charitable organization). In short, sectarian groups get special exemptions simply by being sectarian groups.

      • WTP said, on September 27, 2012 at 7:57 am

        Sigh…I thought you weren’t talking to me…of course this IS in response to Nal. Which still doesn’t explain why you dodge TJ’s valid question above….

        While property tax exemptions vary from state to state, many organizations and individuals are exempt from paying property taxes. These include property owners from military veterans and senior citizens to pension funds to renewable energy (and other) corporations and the federal government.

        Capital gains tax exemptions are also available to non-religious institutions such as Harvard University, whose endowment fund has been described as nothing more than a $40 billion hedge-fund.

        In regard to the parsonage allowance, as I said above to Nal, perhaps someone with more tax knowledge could tell us if the parsonage allowance would not be similar to the rent-free arrangements of some who live on-site as a caretakers of nursing homes or any other secular not-for-profit (or even for-profit) ventures.

        All this being said in regard to clergy taxes and such, the question at hand pertains to the educational institutional aspects of non-secular instititutions.

        As a side note, none of the above should be construed as an endorsement of the wording of this particular constitutional change. I am only pointing out that the arguments agains religious institutions presented here have been cherry-picked without making a simple 10 minute Google search to discern if these exemptions might not apply to secular institutions as well.

  4. Nal said, on September 27, 2012 at 8:02 am

    WTP,

    According to the Employer’s Tax Guide:

    “Payments in kind may be in the form of goods, lodging, food, clothing, or services. Generally, the fair market value of such payments at the time they are provided is subject to federal income tax withholding and social security, Medicare, and FUTA taxes.”

    • WTP said, on September 27, 2012 at 8:57 am

      Interesting. The factoring of goods, lodging, food, clothing (even uniforms?), etc. into compensation re determining income for tax purposes I would presume gets absorbed by the employer via upping the employee’s income, much like most US employers do for their employees who go TDY in other countries. Otherwise the lodging compensation for a caretaker’s abode in some place like Hastings-on-the-Hudson or Palm Beach would be economically prohibitive for most employees.

      Of course, my first question was simply in the context of domestic service and such. Would this also apply to those I describe above, i.e. “the rent-free arrangements of some who live on-site as a caretakers of (non-profit) nursing homes or any other secular not-for-profit ventures?

      • Nal said, on September 27, 2012 at 11:53 am

        Meals and lodging:

        The value of meals is not taxable income and is not subject to income tax withholding and social security, Medicare, and FUTA taxes if the meals are furnished for the employer’s convenience and on the employer’s premises. The value of lodging is not subject to income tax withholding and social security, Medicare, and FUTA taxes if the lodging is furnished for the employer’s convenience, on the employer’s premises, and as a condition of employment.

        However, whether meals or lodging are provided for the convenience of the employer depends on all of the facts and circumstances. A written statement that the meals or lodging are for your convenience is not sufficient.

        It would appear that lodging for live-in maids and caregivers is not considered taxable income.

        However, this is hardly comparable to the housing allowance exemption give to clergy.

        • WTP said, on September 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm

          I wouldn’t say it’s hardly comparable. The clergy are on call 24/7 similar to live-in workers. Most live as close to the church/etc as possible if not in parsonages on-site.

          And again, wouldn’t the clergy exemptions parallel those that apply to secular non-profit employees such as those I describe above?

          As I said before, I’m not entirely comfortable with some of the specifics in regard to clergy, but we seem to be nibbling around the edges in regard to where secular and non-secular tax deductions may diverge. My main point is that Mike conflates tax deductions available to all such charitable entities along with the relative small change we are discussing in an attempt to discredit non-secular entities in a context that is of dubious applicability to the subject of educational subsidies.

          • Nal said, on September 27, 2012 at 3:11 pm

            The housing allowance given to clergy is non-taxable money that is to be used for housing. Secular workers are not given non-taxable money to pay for their own housing. I don’t consider that an insignificant tax deduction difference.

            That on-site secular worker’s housing is similar to on-site clergy’s housing is of dubious applicability.

            • WTP said, on September 27, 2012 at 3:51 pm

              OK, understood. While I might agree that on-site secular worker’s housing is similar to on-site clergy’s housing is of dubious applicability, none the less it seems that the exemption does not exist solely for clergy. I have a sneaking suspicion that this has already gone through the courts and the courts have found it thus. I’m not agreeing with the decision, however the law itself is not clergy-specific.

              I don’t consider that an insignificant tax deduction difference. – No, it would not be insignificant for the individual clergyman, but it would be in the context of the $71 billions ( It must be noted that the study was published in Free Inquiry, which is a “nontheist” publication) in tax exemptions that Mike mentions above.

              I take it from your cat’s reading material that you’re not a big fan of religion. However, since Mike won’t answer TJ’s question above, perhaps you’d give us your thoughts on the matter?

  5. T. J. Babson said, on September 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    Also, Mike, I have been waiting for you to express outrage that Florida wiretapping laws were violated in the Romney recording. Moreover, the recording is “missing” about two minutes right around the time Romney made the 47% remarks.

    So we have an illegal, selectively edited recording, but that seems to carry more weight with you that the 40 years or so Romney has spent in the public eye.

    Forbes:

    It’s illegal in twelve states to record covertly at least the audio portion of a conversation where all parties have not consented. One of those states is Florida. In all fifty states under the Federal Wiretapping statute, at least one party must consent to a recording being made covertly. In Florida, it is either a felony or a high grade misdemeanor under 934.03 for the individual who made the secret recordings of Romney to have done so. The penalty in this case for first offense under the Florida statute pursuant to section 775.082 (4)(a) is up to one year in prison, unless the offense is committed for commercial gain.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/marcwebertobias/2012/09/18/the-romney-video-whoever-shot-it-broke-the-law-in-florida/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 28, 2012 at 6:54 am

      As an advocate of privacy, I do hold that people have a right not to be recorded in secret when they are somewhere they have an expectation of privacy. However, there are exceptions. One obvious exception is the investigation of criminal activity (which is covered by the law). Another is when the secret recording can be morally justified. For example, when reporters are investigating misdeeds. After all, while people do have a moral right to privacy, they do not have a moral right to secrecy in which to commit or plan misdeeds.

      In the case of Romney, it can be argued that he did have an expectation of privacy (it was a private event) and that he had a right to know that he was being recorded. However, it can be argued that when a politician is engaged in a political event (as opposed to, for example, being at home) then the public has a right to know what is occurring. Of course, the private-public lines can be blurry. In the case of the fund raiser, on the one hand it is clearly a political event. On the other hand, it is cast as a private fund raiser. However, it could be contended that since political deals are made at such events, that the public has a right to know what is occurring (the same applies to Democrats). After all, it could be argued that politicians do not have a right to wheel and deal in private in regards to public concerns.

      One point of interest is, of course, that technology has rather changed the notions of privacy. After all, it might be said that today people should know that everything they say around other people could be recorded by a smartphone-as such, the notion of a secret recording is almost obsolete since people know that everyone around them is probably carrying an active camera and mic. I know that I assume that whenever I am around people, anything I say or do can be recorded-that is the reality of the smartphone era. Of course, there is still the moral question about whether people should be doing this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,061 other followers

%d bloggers like this: