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  Are there discrepancies between civil and church law?

This week we hear from Jacquelin G., a resident of Walton County, who asks a legal question. She wants to know how a Christian can embrace the discrepancies between civil law and church law? Obviously, in some churches women don't have the same career opportunities as men, even though civil laws dictates that employers cannot discriminate based on gender. Should a Christian tolerate a church law that violates civil law?

Jacquelin's question is both legal and theological. To answer the legal points of this column, I consulted an attorney. According to the First Amendment of the Constitution, the Church in America has been freed from most governmental intervention. For instance, churches are exempt from membership discrimination laws and neither do churches pay property taxes on properties used for their ministries.

On the other hand, there are civil legalities that apply to the Church for the health, welfare, and safety of those participants. For instance, uniform building codes apply to the construction of churches, both for the safety of those who attend, as well as for those who live within the locale. Further, churches are not exempt from criminal law, even if the acts might seem protected by their religious beliefs-which is why polygamy was deemed an unprotected religious right in Utah in 1878 by the U.S. Supreme Court and why the use of the drug peyote in religious services was ruled illegal in Oregon in 1990.

Nonetheless, the Church has been left with plenty of latitude when it comes to discrimination. According to the attorney I contacted, the courts will not intervene in civil matters where there are "bona fide religious beliefs" to support their act of discrimination. This extends into employment law where "private, fraternal organizations" are exempt from the discrimination laws.

This particularly applies to positions within the church where matters of teaching and doctrinal implementation are performed. Thus, the ordination and employment of clergy falls within the "bona fide beliefs" of the religious sect in question. Which is to say, if the Southern Baptists, the Roman Catholics, and others choose to discriminate against women, they are within their legal rights to do so because their "beliefs" teach these "truths."

But what of the theological issues, the second part to Jacquelin's question? I've written before about this issue (past columns can be found at www.rockinauburn.com) and in the interest of space I'll not repeat myself, except to say that I believe scriptures can be interpreted to legitimately include women in all areas of church ministry-including clerical roles. However, Jacquelin is clearly interested in a Christian's response to discriminatory churches, especially if one chooses to interpret scripture differently than the ruling body.

In the Catholic faith, the interpretation of scripture is left in the hands of the priesthood. For adherents to Catholicism, the only recourse is to accept those teachings or leave the church.

However, according to the Protestant faith, individuals are responsible for the faithful and correct interpretation of the scriptures. Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517 with this very tenet. The Baptists and others call this responsibility the "priesthood of the believer." The term comes from 1st Peter 2 and Revelation 5.9-10 where believers are designated as individual priests who have no need for intervention in matters of faith, prayer, and scriptural interpretation.

For outside the Catholic church, individuals have the responsibility to rightly interpret church doctrine according to their own prayerful understandings from their study of the scriptures. For many, this has led them to believe that those churches who discriminate against women (or race, or disability, or.) are wrong and sinful bastions of intolerance. For those who have reached this interpretation, there are two possible "Christian" responses.

One solution is to confront and change the system. Jesus modeled this with both his message and his life. Indeed, his confrontation of the religious establishment cost him his life. A second response is to leave the offending church and go where you can participate with a good conscience. Jesus modeled this response too when he left Nazareth because the people there rejected his teachings (Luke 4).

So, the choice is in your hands. In the U.S., the law isn't going to force the Church to ordain and employ women clergy any time soon, or at least as long as the First Amendment stands. On the other hand, no one is under an obligation to support or remain within a fellowship that seems discriminatory in their eyes and in their beliefs.

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