Official Exemption from the Law of the Land


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    For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.
    Romans 2:14


    In many countries Churches enjoy special exemptions from the law of the land. In the past such exemptions placed churchmen above the law in many respects — immunity from civil prosecution, freedom from taxation, exemption from military service, and so on. In a reduced form these exemptions continue.

    In Britain, clergymen are exempt from jury service. This means that the rest of the population has to perform this civic duty for them. Productive members of society are taken from their jobs, sometimes for months, while clergymen are excused. Similarly, the fact that Churches are still exempt from certain taxes means that everyone else has to pay that much more. Blasphemy legislation pleases fundamentalist Christians but deprives others of what they regard as free speech, art and entertainment. State funding of Christian schools means that good teachers are denied jobs if they are not sufficiently devout, even if their subject has no connection with religion. Again, the clergy (who once played such a major fighting role in battle) now enjoy exemption from conscription. In time of war others now have to take their places. Exemption from planning permission legislation allows the Church to put up buildings that others find offensive and to demolish buildings that would otherwise be protected. The law also enables Churches to indulge in unfair commercial competition. In the past European missionaries were provided with diplomatic passports. Special provisions in immigration laws still allow Christian priests and ministers to enter and live in countries where they would otherwise be ineligible to do so. In the House of Lords the Bench of Bishops continue a long tradition of using their votes to frustrate reform. At the time of writing the bishops have lead the opposition to an Equality Bill in Britain, retaining for themselves and other religious organisations an enhanced right to discriminate against homosexuals and others, even though their existing ability to discriminate is already in contravention of European directives*.

    In the USA, various legal exemptions and rights have been extended to Christian Churches. In a case in 1988 it was decided that preachers in California enjoyed special privileges. In March of that year the state's Supreme Court confirmed that preachers should enjoy protection from libel suits*. The right of citizens to protect their good names from libel now takes second place to the rights of religion. Christian Scientists are protected by law when they withhold medical treatment from children, even when the children die as a result. If atheists behaved like Christian Scientists they would be charged with homicide, or at least wilful negligence, but Christian Scientists are given legal exemptions because of their religion. Many states passed laws in the 1970s that absolved from guilt parents who use "spiritual healing" for the treatment of their children. There is thus a steady stream of cases where defendants rely on these laws to avoid murder or manslaughter charges since, predictably, seriously sick children often die without proper medical attention*.

    In April 1986 a Christian Scientist couple, David and Ginger Twitchel, watched for five days as their young son, Robin, sickened and died. He was suffering from an intestinal twist, a condition that could easily have been remedied by conventional medicine. But conventional medical attention was denied to him. Instead he died a painful death, vomiting his own faeces. One might have thought that his parents (who had both previously taken painkillers for their own minor ailments) should be imprisoned for a very long time. Instead they were given a suspended sentence and allowed to retain custody of their other children. Actually, they were unlucky to have been convicted at all, since a Massachusetts Law, steered through the legislature by Christian Scientists in 1971, had attempted to enable people to rely on so-called "spiritual healing" in such cases. In Massachusetts medical insurers are required to pay for Christian Science practitioners and nurses, and the Church and its practitioners are protected from malpractice suits*.

    In Indiana alone dozens of children have died because of Faith Assembly practices, but the prosecutor is powerless to act because of religious-immunity laws*. The Church has won religious exemptions from basic health care regulations in 48 of the 50 states*. Sick people trusting in Christian faith healers are often discouraged from seeking medical advice, again leading to predictable results. In one case a woman suffered a heart attack while participating in a spiritual healing, and was left to die*. The healer was not prosecuted, as an atheist quack would have been. Once again the mantle of Christian ministration conferred immunity from the law.

    The Christian lobby in the USA is sufficiently powerful to have the law amended whenever it does not suit Christian ideas. In the 1990s two Native Americans failed to persuade the Supreme Court that the First Amendment to the Constitution protected their religious right to smoke an hallucinogenic drug (peyote). The court held that people's faith did not provide exemption from the law. Christian leaders reacted to this decision since it affected their own privileges. Under pressure from Christian lobby groups, Congress passed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This Act stated that officials (whether city, state or federal) could not enforce a regulation if it "substantially burdens a person's exercise of religion" unless there was a "compelling government interest" for doing so. A number of groups and individuals took advantage of the Act to gain privileges on religious grounds. Convicted criminals won the right to religious privileges such as special meals and clothes, and the right to grow their hair. One devout Christian has claimed that she is exempt from local laws, having refused to let rooms to a homosexual couple on religious grounds. In Boerne, Texas, the local council declined permission to demolish a church building of historical interest, but the Roman Catholic Church claimed that the council couldn"t restrain it. The local archbishop, Patrick Flores, claimed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act over-rides the planning rules. American sympathy for religious privilege extends beyond their own shores. For example the Constitution imposed on Japan by the USA after World War II made religious institutions free from government interference. As a result religious organisations pay no tax and are accountable only to themselves.

    Since the Vatican is technically a sovereign state, it enjoys all of the rights conferred by Diplomatic Immunity. It claims these rights to the full. Using its diplomatic status the Vatican has given favoured criminals sanctuary in its embassies around the world*. For crimes committed by its own clergy, the Roman Catholic Church can also invoke Diplomatic Immunity to protect them. When Archbishop Marcinkus was charged with serious crimes by the Italian authorities in the 1980s, the Vatican refused to hand him over for trial, claiming Diplomatic Immunity. Had he been brought to trial we might now be a great deal wiser about major irregularities at the Vatican Bank, and about a selection of other serious crimes, including a number of murders*. Under Pope John Paul II the Vatican increased the number of countries where it has diplomatic representation from 85 to 174 — so it seems likely that more crimes will go unpunished in the future because of the cloak of diplomatic immunity.


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    §. BBC News 25 January 2010:"Government defeated three times over church gay plan: The government has suffered three House of Lords defeats over moves churches said would prevent them denying jobs to gay people and transsexuals."

    §. "Speak and Ye Shall Be Protected", The Economist, p 39, 26 th March 1988.

    §. "Neglect Versus Creed", The Economist, p 41, 7 th July 1990.

    §. "They Loved Their Child; They Also loved God", The Independent, 30 th May 1990.

    §. Basil et al (eds.), On the Barricades, p 118.

    §. For a discussion of Christian Science, Faith Healing and the Law, see Basil et al (eds.), On the Barricades, pp 114-123.

    §. Charlotte, North Carolina, Observer and News, 1 st January 1978.

    §. An example is General Noriega, President of Panama, who was granted sanctuary in the Vatican Embassy in the 1980s.

    §. Serious cases to answer are presented in David Yallop's book In God's Name, Corgi Books ( London, 1988).

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