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May 8, 2020

The Separation of Will and Work

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists to assure them that their freedom to practice their faith would be safeguarded under the First Amendment. He was responding to a letter they had sent, stating that their religious preferences were favours granted, instead of the inalienable rights of free men. Interestingly, the phrase “the separation of church and state” was born out of that same correspondence.

The First Amendment is simple in concept, powerful in effect, and nothing short of essential. It exists, in part, to ensure that the church does not rule the state and that the state does not rule the church. Further, it sanctifies freedom of speech and the right to protest, essential tenets of liberty.

The Christian church, on the other hand, subscribes to its own kind of separation: The Biblical Chain of Command. In the New Testament, the Bible declares that taking another believer to be judged in front of non-believers is contemptible. Given the implications of the First Amendment, the court—a state-run entity—can easily be classified as a group of non-believers, and no place for the disagreements of good Christians.

Almost 200 years later, in 1979, Linda Hoskinson, a married elementary teacher, had her contract at Davey Christian School ended because she was pregnant. The school suggested, under their employment contract and in an official letter, that she had skewed her priorities. “As a school, we see the importance of the mother in the home during the early years of child growth” the letter stated. Ending her contract was, in their view, in her children’s best interests.

Linda, however, wanted to work—she possibly needed to. She consulted an attorney who threatened the school with litigation if it did not agree to rehire her. The attorney cited state and federal sex discrimination laws which would likely regard the termination of a pregnant woman, because she was pregnant, as a violation. The school responded by rescinding their initial letter and firing her on the spot.

This time, the school cited the Biblical Chain of Command as their reason, partly because it was written in her contract, but definitely because it was written in the Bible. In terms of the contract, teachers must bring any grievance to their supervisor and acquiesce in the final decision of Dayton's board of directors, rather than resort to civil court. The contract read: “The teacher agrees to follow the Biblical pattern of Matthew 18:15-17 and Galatians 6 and always give a good report. All differences are to be resolved by utilising Biblical principles—always presenting a united front.”

For someone in Linda’s position, no matter how strong their faith, escalating the dispute seems an obvious next step, and she subsequently approached the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. She claimed that the non-renewal — an effective termination — was sexual discrimination, and the subsequent outright termination was based on unlawful employment qualifications.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission agreed. Well, they found “sufficient probable cause” to believe that the school had discriminated against Linda — about as definite as a commission will get about messy matters. The school, not to be outdone, shot back claiming that the First Amendment — the wall between the church and state — prevented the Commission from having jurisdiction. And won. The Court ruled that the Commission’s investigation contravened the school’s First Amendment rights.

There was so much controversy around the decision that it even the divided the American Civil Liberties Union. “There are those on the [ACLU] board who think that, even if this is a matter of religious doctrine, the interest in equality is too great and the state ought to have a right to enforce its civil rights laws.” said Lawrence Herman, a general counsel for ACLU at the time, “Others think that if this really is a matter of church doctrine, then that is paramount to any interest the state has in prohibiting discrimination.”

The division was not unfounded either. Each of the constitutional principles concerned—equal protection of the law and freedom of religion—are themselves foundational. One is a mechanism of the state, a framework used to challenge chaos and entropy. The other, a pivotal pillar in an individual's sovereignty and democracy itself.

Eventually, the national American Civil Liberties Union supported an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. They argued that while the First Amendment applies, the Commission should be able to ascertain whether the “biblical chain of command” was a disguise for discrimination. And the Supreme Court agreed: “the Commission violates no constitutional rights by merely investigating the circumstances of the discharge in this case.” The Supreme Court then reversed the lower courts ruling.

Christian fundamentalists—which the school considers itself to be—are devoted to the ideal of freedom just as much as liberals are. Their economic policies always state the importance of free markets, members are free to come and go, and even individual churches are free to reject ecclesiastical structures. Freedom also underlines an individual’s relationship to God, as described by Calvinists: “The godly individual is one who obeys God’s commands of his own free will. Fundamentalists believe, as Calvin did, that true freedom is voluntary submission to the will of God.”

Yet, in this case, freedom didn’t extend to support a working mother, even if it meant that the children, that the school was trying to protect in the first place, were worse off. And one hopes that is why Davey Christian School—which considers itself to be “nondenominational”—ended up making amendments of their own, but it isn't likely.


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