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October 8, 2006

Breaking faith

Last week I wrote about how organized religion in the U.S. abuses its tax-exempt status by promoting Republican candidates and causes. But as the New York Times points out in a 4,700-word article, the exemptions granted to religious groups go much further—as does their abuse. Some extracts below:

At any moment, state inspectors can step unin-
vited into one of the three child care centers that Ethel White runs in Auburn, Ala., to make sure they meet state requirements intended to ensure that the children are safe. There must be continuing training for the staff. Her nurseries must have two sinks, one exclusively for food preparation. All cabinets must have safety locks. Medications for the children must be kept under lock and key, and refrigerated.
The Rev. Ray Fuson of the Harvest Temple Church of God in Montgomery, Ala., does not have to worry about unannounced state inspections at the day care center his church runs. Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements, which were tightened after almost a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed day care centers in the state in two years.
The differences do not end there. As an employer, Ms. White must comply with the civil rights laws; if employees feel mistreated, they can take the center to court. Religious organizations, including Pastor Fuson’s, are protected by the courts from almost all lawsuits filed by their ministers or other religious staff members, no matter how unfairly those employees think they have been treated.
And if you are curious about how Ms. White’s nonprofit center uses its public grants and donations, read the financial statements she is required to file each year with the Internal Revenue Service. There are no I.R.S. reports from Harvest Temple. Federal law does not require churches to file them.
… In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
… An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.
The special breaks amount to “a sort of religious affirmative action program,” said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.
Professor Witte added: “Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today’s public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land.”
… As a result of these special breaks, religious organizations of all faiths stand in a position that American businesses — and the thousands of nonprofit groups without that “religious” label — can only envy. And the new breaks come at a time when many religious organizations are expanding into activities — from day care centers to funeral homes, from ice cream parlors to fitness clubs, from bookstores to broadcasters — that compete with these same businesses and nonprofit organizations.
… Federal law gives religious congregations unique tools to challenge government restrictions on the way they use their land. Consequently, land-use restrictions that are a result of longstanding public demands for open space or historic preservation may be trumped by a religious ministry’s construction plans, as in a current dispute in Boulder County, Colo.
Exemptions in the civil rights laws protect religious employers from all legal complaints about faith-based preferences in hiring. The courts have shielded them from many complaints about other forms of discrimination, whether based on race, nationality, age, gender, medical condition or sexual orientation. And most religious organizations have been exempted from federal laws meant to protect pensions and to provide unemployment benefits.
Governments have been as generous with tax breaks as with regulatory exemptions. Congress has imposed limits on the I.R.S.’s ability to audit churches, synagogues and other religious congregations. And beyond the federal income tax exemption they share with all nonprofit groups, houses of worship have long been granted an exemption from local property taxes in every state.
… Religious organizations defend the exemptions as a way to recognize the benefits religious groups have provided — operating schools, orphanages, old-age homes and hospitals long before social welfare and education were widely seen as the responsibility of government.
But while ministries that run soup kitchens and homeless shelters benefit from these exemptions, secular nonprofits serving the same needy people often do not. And rather than just rewarding charitable works that benefit society, these breaks are equally available to religious organizations that provide no charitable services to anyone.
Similarly, religious nonprofit groups that run nationwide broadcasting networks, produce best-selling publications or showcase a charismatic leader’s books and speeches can take advantage of exemptions that are not available to secular nonprofit groups — not to mention for-profit companies — engaged in the same activities.

Which is why there’ll soon be a backlash—one that, under a less extreme adminis-
tration, might see some success. The religious crazies, though, believe they are above the law. Listen to Gerry Witt, a founding member of a megachurch seeking to expand into protected agricultural land in Boulder County, Colorado:

“So is there any limit?” He thought a moment, then answered his question. “Yes,” he said. “There’s God’s limit. When he says, ‘You’re at your limit,’ that’s when we will stop.”

UPDATE 10/11/06: Today’s Times has an equally long follow-up, focusing on the lack of employee rights in religious organizations. Worth a read, as are parts three and four of the series.

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