Matthew 22.21 should have been a little clearer. It tells us, that the faithful should “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” without clarifying what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. Throw into this mix the differing interpretations of the ‘Establishment Clause’ and the ‘Free Exercise Clause’ enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…), and interpretations of what it means to separate Church and State, and it is not difficult to explain why everyone is convinced that the other side is wrong on matters presently prophylactic.
Much has already been said about the motivations of each side. Taken at face value the Obama administration is interested in ensuring women’s health, and the church and their allies are taking a principled stance to resist “needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/us/catholic-bishops-criticize-new-contraception-proposal.html?_r=1&hp) But I’m more inclined to read between the lines and look at more cynical explanations. Was this an early play by the Democrats to introduce a wedge issue so that the women’s vote could be firmed up for November? Was the church trying to chip away at reproductive rights of women? Were the Republican candidates using this occasion to reinforce the perception held in some quarters that the Obama administration is subtly but surely stripping away our freedoms, and extending the hand of government into the most intimate aspects of our lives? Depending on where you stand each of these and similar questions have at least three different answers, making any group or party look good, bad, or ugly.
It seems to me that the Obama administration initially overstepped its bounds in its executive order, and had the State put its hand into the Church prerogative cookie jar. That seems to be the position of the Obama administration which has now modified its executive order. The modification notwithstanding, I still think the administration is overreaching. In fact I think the State should have very little to say about what health care benefits anybody should be given in a system where workers and employees negotiate compensation and benefits. We live under a bizarre framework where an employee IS NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE HEALTH BENEFITS, BUT IF THEY DO PROVIDE HEALTH BENEFITS THEN THEY MUST MEET A NUMBER OF REQUIREMENTS. Put simply, I think the state should be very circumspect before regulating or dictatingthe terms of VOLUNTARY contracts between private parties (see next paragraph for clarification). If the Obama administration really thought that the lack of availability of contraception for women was jeopardizing women’s health, they should make contaception available to all women.
It is important that I qualify the previous paragraph by stating clearly that I am not arguing that the state should not make any regulations that can affect contracts between private parties. Clearly if there are social costs that result from private contracts, and regulations can ameliorate those costs, the state should step in. Nor am I suggesting that the State should play no role in the health care system . My preference would be for, and I am disappointed that the Obama administration did not go all out to get a single payer health care system going in this country.
On the other side, this seems a good time to raise a structural problem about how the state treats religious institutions, and why religious institutions do not render to Caesar his due (the same argument would hold true for a number of other tax exempt institutions, including educational institutions). Why are religious and educational institutions exempted from paying taxes? And when I speak about taxes, I speak about taxes at all levels – federal, state, and local. The principle for collecting taxes from the rest of us, apply to these institutions too. For example, let’s take local property taxes. One of the main reasons for local property taxes is that it is a stable source of income for local communities to clear snow, make sure the sidewalks are paved, pick up garbage etc. Religious and educational institutions need these services as much as anybody else and it makes little sense to exempt them from these payments. In fact doing so shifts the burden of supporting these institutions and their activities to all of us. Similar arguments can be made for other taxes like the income tax, the capital gains tax etc. And compared to a number of us who pay these taxes, religious institutions like the Catholic Church and many a Hindu Temple, or educational institutions, like Harvard, Boston University, and Earlham College are much wealthier and earn more in income.
The main argument to give institutions tax exempt status is that these institutions do a great amount of social good and need to be subsidized. These claims are taken as indisputable, and are therefore not disputed. But let’s take them on. It makes sense for the state to subsidize activities that are socially necessary and will not be provided without the subsidy. Are we to believe that the Church and other religious institutions will stop doing what they are doing if they were not subsidized? Or will Harvard or Yale not do what they do if they have to contribute to maintaining the streets and clearing the snow in their communities? I submit that the answer to both these questions is an emphatic NO, THEY WILL NOT CHANGE ANYTHING THAT THEY DO. And if simply contributing to the social good is enough reason not to be taxed, then shouldn’t the businesses which provide jobs be exempted from taxes given the social benefits of there being jobs? It seems to me that if we are consistent, the answer is YES.
There is another reason given for why religious institutions are not taxed – the claim that it is an application of the principle of separation of church and state. This argument seems to have it backwards. The best way to ensure that the state is not taking a position on religion (either the notion of religion or particular way it is practiced) is to treat religious institutions the way it treats every other institution. So make everybody tax exempt, or tax everybody.
To conclude, I return to Mathew 22.21. It is time that the State rendered to God what is God’s and stopped telling the Church that it (or in the modified form, its insurance providers) should pay for contraception. And it is high time that the Church render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and started paying taxes.