Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Separation of Church, State, and Bathrooms?

by Rev. Laura Barclay

The offices of CBF of North Carolina share second floor office space with the NC Revenue Service, among other businesses. We have never had a major conflict with that office--until that fateful Tuesday. My co-worker came back from the restroom horrified. “They are putting locks on the restrooms to keep the public out!” Upon our questioning of the building manager, who arrived shortly after to give us the code to the bathroom keypad, he explained that it was to “keep street people out.”

“Who are street people?” I asked.
“Uh, you know, not people who would come to your office. It’s mostly the people that come to the tax office,” he responded.
“Oh, you mean poor people?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I mean, the people that visit your office are ok,” he said nervously.
“So, our visitors are somehow better than those of the revenue office?” I questioned.

And so on. My co-workers and I argued something like this: “Going to the bathroom is a basic human right. The tax office should not dictate this as there are other paying tenants in the building. If you give us that code, we will give it to everyone, because the government cannot say who can and cannot go to the bathroom. We are a church, and Jesus preached hospitality. We refuse to sit in a building and idly watch people who come in to conduct business not be allowed to use the bathroom because they are not deemed eligible by the revenue offices’ standards. It’s inhumane.”

He later apologized, explained he was a Christian and just doing his job. He stated that they had responded to a complaint from the tax office about a messy bathroom. Because they had the highest number of visitors of any tenant, their opinion was chosen without asking others.

Perhaps this encounter underscores, in an everyday and mundane way, the importance of the Baptist value of separation of church and state. We can’t even agree on bathroom procedure! While the government does have some wonderful services that the church is simply not organized enough to provide (i.e., public education and unemployment services, among other things), we can call the government toward the hospitality exemplified in Jesus’ life. We have the freedom to do so because our interests are not entangled. I encourage you to do this in your own lives and churches, whether it pertains to healthcare for millions of uninsured Americans, environmental concerns, systemic poverty issues in your community, or any issues that weigh on the hearts of those who love God and their neighbor.

Thoughts and questions for reflection:

How does the church reflect hospitality? Is your church open to the poor?

How do Christians reflect or not reflect Jesus’ call to hospitality?

What does Jesus’ example of hospitality mean to you?


  1. Oh, by the way, if you happen to visit the CBFNC's offices in Winston-Salem, the restroom code is 245!

  2. I suppose the solution, according to the tax office, is that we lock the bathroom, forcing persons to relieve themselves outside, making them susceptible to arrest?

    I agree with your stance and commend it. "Going to the bathroom is a basic human right." It absolutely is. Thank you for providing hospitality to these children of God.

    This easily could have been one of Christ's parables: "Which one was a neighbor? The one who put up with a messy bathroom or the one who said 'you are not good enough for our facilities'?"

    Daniel Glaze

  3. Nancy,

    Thanks for your comment! Readers: She is the co-worker mentioned in the story, and her hospitality to our guests is one of CBFNC's greatest assets.


    Thank you for your words of support! It is alarming when you see such an absurd violation of hospitality. Jesus' life, action and parables call us to intervene for our brothers and sisters when we see such violations and injustices, as you point out--it could've been a parable!

    Thanks for the comments, all, and have a great week!