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Pondering church and state
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I learned early that the three things you're not supposed to talk about in polite company are sex, religion and politics. But Mark Twain said, correctly, that those were the only three things interesting enough to talk about. So today I'm throwing caution to the wind and talking about all three.

Once upon a time, in this very state, it was commonplace for missionaries from various churches to call upon our public schools. They sponsored regularly scheduled assemblies at which students reciting various passages of scripture were awarded various gifts.

This was back in the 1950s and 60s, in the days of segregation. I vividly remember standing on our school's stage, quoting from the third chapter of John's gospel, and still have the little New Testament my nervous effort earned that day.

We'd moved to tiny Greensboro from Decatur when I was six years old. Frequently we'd visit our relatives in Atlanta, usually on a Saturday. Those and other experiences taught me that there were folks who practiced religions other than Christianity. When we visited my mother's sisters, we'd pass the Jewish synagogue on LaVista Road near Cheshire Bridge. Jews wearing their yarmulkes walked to services, as driving was prohibited on Saturday - their Sabbath.

Back in Greensboro there were a total of three Jewish families. They ran an upscale clothing store, located right next to their discount 5-and-10-cent store.

The Jewish kids went to public school with the rest of us. They attended the Christian assembly programs, and nobody sued anybody. Nobody fussed and screamed about rights being infringed upon. It was a fact of life that the overwhelming majority of people in our society were Christians, and the customs in place reflected the rule of the majority.

But the assembly programs with the visiting missionaries halted in the early 1960s. I didn't know why then, and even today can't be sure. Research reveals that a Supreme Court decision in 1962, Engel v. Wade, stopped the practice of having students recite a government-composed, non-denominational "Regents" prayer. And a 1963 decision by the high court, Abington Township School District v. Schempp, ruled that mandatory Bible verse recitation was unconstitutional.

So it might be that those Supreme Court rulings brought about the end of our public school missionary visits in the early 1960s. Or it could be that those in power in Georgia state government knew that the brewing civil rights storm portended bigger fish to fry in the days ahead. Perhaps those folks caved in on the school prayer and Bible verse recitation in order to gird themselves for battle on the segregation front.

I don't know.

What I do know is that the much-debated issue of separation between church and state has been around since the earliest days of our republic. The folks who put this nation together - the Founding Fathers - pretty much agreed that a wall of separation should exist between government policies and any official establishment of religion.

Having read Jefferson, Madison and Adams, it's clear to even my feeble mind that the Founding Fathers wanted this country to be a place where people could worship as they choose, or not at all, without danger of being proselytized, bullied or discriminated against by the religious views of the majority.

But those same Founding Fathers made it clear that they believed in an Almighty God and that this nation should follow what they termed "Christian principles."

Now, having said that, let's open two whole new cans of worms: the tax exempt status of churches and other religious institutions, who tacitly admit they're part of big business, and the use of public tax monies to improve upon properties owned by religious organizations.

There has been much debate, but no Supreme Court rulings of which this inept layman is aware, as to whether or not tax breaks granted to religious organizations represents de facto governmental endorsement of those religions.

What? Let me try again, in plain English.

If a church is granted tax-exempt status by a government organization, does that not represent official support of that religion? By not taxing the institution, government allows funds generated by that organization to be used to further its goals instead of being allocated to pay taxes.

You see where this is leading?

More plainly, let me speak to three local issues which have raised my concern: my own First United Methodist Church's joining the Newton Chamber of Commerce, the use of Church in the Now facilities for graduation ceremonies by Newton County high schools and SPLOST monies building a parking deck on land privately owned by First Baptist Church.

I got a little heartburn when my church, First United Methodist, joined the Chamber of Commerce. At issue, I felt, was that by joining the chamber the church was admitting that the institution is a business. Yet, as a non-profit, the church does not pay taxes on the nearly two city blocks of prime real estate upon which the impressive edifice sits, nor on other properties and considerable assets owned by the church.

First United Methodist also recently adopted a spiffy new logo, which adorns not only stationary but a newly-available line of clothing. How, I wonder, do profits from clothing sales fit into the non-profit status of a religious institution's non-business?

So I spoke with the business manager of the First United Methodist, who gave me the facts. Cutting to the chase, it came down to this: 14 other area churches already belonged to the Chamber of Commerce, and their experiences have proven that the advantages of reaching people moving into the area through the chamber far outstrip traditional methods. The church's reach is made more efficacious by belonging to the chamber.

The clothing sales were generated by an internal gift, with all profits going back into the ministries of the church. In the end, everything about First United Methodist joining the Chamber of Commerce amounted to a "win-win" situation for everyone involved.

Let me speak plainly, now.

The fact is that we all know the church business is not just big business, but huge business. You need look no further than a few miles west down I-20 at mega-establishments such as Church in the Now. That organization's own Web site lets you know their affiliations; you can find more than a dozen other organizations for which CITN provides oversight.

Recently the Church in the Now has provided the venue for graduation ceremonies for the high schools of Newton County. School system officials confirmed to me that CITN has never charged the Newton County schools for these magnanimous acts, which have benefited the schools since their ever-growing student populations long ago outstripped the capacity of any local indoor facility to host a graduation ceremony.

So the arrangement between CITN and the Newton County School System has been a "win-win" situation, because everyone involved has paid careful attention to details.

But evangelism, mega-churches, and mainstream churches all represent an industry which annually rakes in trillions of dollars. I remember televangelist Jimmy Swaggart sobbing on television in 1988 after having been caught in a hotel room with a prostitute. Oh, was Swaggart remorseful. His ministry's income the next year was sliced in exactly half: instead of taking in 250 million dollars from the faithful, he got only 125 million that year.

Swaggart was not the first person, nor will he be the last, to rip folks off in the name of God. And if you believe that Hell is a real place, there's no doubt in my mind that the first and foremost residents therein will be those who have profited in this life from running illicit scams and shady evangelical deals perpetrated in the name of the Almighty.

Let's now consider the matter of SPLOST tax dollars being allocated for a multi-level parking deck currently being built on land privately owned by Covington's First Baptist Church across the street from the new county administrative offices and future hotel/convention center. Some folks have raised concerns that the funding of this edifice with tax monies violates the edict of separation of church and state.

Well, get ready.

There is no such animal mentioned anywhere in the United States Constitution regarding separation of church and state. But even were there, I've spent a lot of personal time this week and have found that there is no subversive, secretive or evil plan to thwart the Constitution, or to use tax dollars wrongly.

I've talked to county officials and to folks at First Baptist who helped bring about what amounts to a "win-win" for everyone. The SPLOST dollars pay for construction, maintenance and management of a parking deck, to be built on land owned by First Baptist. The land has been leased to the county for 30 years, after which ownership reverts to the church. So until long after I've begun my dirt nap, folks having business with the county or staying at the convention center can park there. Church folks can use the facility for church events, also. It's a total "win-win," and it's all legal and above board.

So, in the end, Mark Twain was right, you see. Sex, religion and politics are, indeed, worth talking about. And I'm gratified to have learned that, in these instances at least, instead of "separation of church and state" there's a much more palatable force at work: call it cooperation between church and state.