I should start this post by explaining to those who don’t already know , I define myself as a Christian but hold no allegiance to any organized religion or denomination. I came to my faith through the reading of the Gospel and then through the reading of the Bible in context.
I tell you this only to inform you of my personal belief system and to show that I have no axe to grind with any other religion or denomination, I do believe that I am less likely to see faith as a team sport due to this, but I understand the need some people have for an organized system of faith. That is the freedom we have here in the United States. The freedom to worship as we see fit.
That actually brings me now to the point of my post. Is your church really free?
First answer two questions. Is your church incorporated? And is your church filed as a 501c3? If you answered yes to either, then you may not have as much religious freedom as you think you do.
The founding of this nation was based on two fundamental ideas of freedom, one was the freedom of speech, especially political speech, and secondly the freedom of religion.
Now many of you know how I feel about keeping my faith and my government completely separate. I feel that one’s faith will suffer relative to the amount of government involvement in said faith. Personally I see no need for the organized public prayers that others seem to need to legitimize their own faith. I am also not sure that I would want to be involved with a church that spent more time preaching about politics than it did about the Gospel.
But again I recognize that some people desire that their churches were more outspoken on political issues. They seek to mobilize the parishioners to act as a voting block. Again in my view this comes down to religious freedom, if you are attending a church that is politically motivated and you are not, you can choose another church. And the same is true of the opposite, you are free to seek out a politically motivated church.
This has become very important in recent months with Pres. Obama speaking out on two very social issues. First is the mandate that religious organizations must supply insurance that pays for contraceptives for their employees, even if that goes against their doctrine. The second is Pres. Obama’s recent statement of support for homosexual marriage.
Many people have been disappointed that their churches and church leaders have not been outspoken enough on these two issues and to call for political reactions to the president’s position. Now in fairness there has been limited and subtle response from the black community and a legal challenge from one organization.
For this post however I am asking why has there not been a more fervent outcry from the pulpit.
One has to believe that one reason, if not the reason, is that the churches fear losing their tax exempt status. They fear that if they were to call for a political reaction to these attacks on their faith, that the government would react by repealing their tax exempt status.
But is that even possible? I don’t think that it is, since the churches are protected by the First Amendment under the freedom of religion clause. So why do so many churches and people alike believe that the government has the power to tax the churches?
Well mostly because in 1954 then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson was a driving force to adding churches to the tax code under section 501c3, or better known as the tax exempt code. Johnson sold this as a favor to the churches, but what it has done, is to silence the pulpit. As I said earlier, out of fear of losing this tax exemption.
But does the federal government have the power to grant tax exemption? A better question is, does the federal government have the power to tax a church? I say no, again since the first Amendment puts the churches squarely outside the purview of government, then the government cannot place a tax upon a church with the threat of shutting down the church if the tax is not paid. So if the government cannot tax a church, then there is no need for tax exemption.
Even the I R S recognizes this in their own code 508 (c) (1) (A), the code says,
“The notification requirement set forth in IRC 508(a) is subject to exceptions and these are listed in IRC 508(c). Under IRC 508(c)(1) there are several exceptions to notice which are applicable to (A) churches, and their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, or (B) any organization, other than a private foundation, the gross receipts of which in each taxable year are normally not more than $5,000.”
What this means is that churches and their auxiliaries have no need to apply for tax exemption. So if the I R S feels that there is no need to apply for tax exemption by churches, then one would have to believe that there is nothing to lose. Churches are also automatically tax deductible according to IRS Publication 526 which says, “Organizations That Qualify To Receive Deductible Contributions, You can deduct your contributions only if you make them to a qualified organization. To become a qualified organization, most organizations other than churches and governments, as described below, must apply to the IRS.”
The second thing that modern churches have chosen to do that ties them to government is to incorporate. Why?
Well there are three reasons that most likely seem attractive to some churches, these being,
1. A corporation has limited liability protection
2. A corporation may exist in perpetuity
3. A corporations may hold title to real property
However there is another legal attribute to a corporation that may not be as desirable to churches and one that the churches may not have been made aware of, a corporation can sue and be sued. This is extremely important I feel since states like Delaware have passed homosexual antidiscrimination laws along with homosexual civil union laws and there is still a push for homosexual marriage laws, so how long before a homosexual couple will be bringing a law suit against a church for refusing to perform a homosexual marriage? And since the church has already established a legal connection between the church and government, they have given government a perceived sovereignty over the church.
It is the legal entanglements that the churches have chosen to take on in an attempt to safeguard themselves, that have actually put them at the greatest risk, not only from individuals, but from the very government that should have no say, what so ever, over the free exercise of their religion.
Point of fact, in the case of Hale vs. Henkel the U.S. Supreme court said this about corporations,
” Upon the other hand, the corporation is a creature of the State. It is presumed to be incorporated for the benefit of the public. It receives certain special privileges and franchises, and holds them subject to the laws of the State and the limitations of its charter. Its powers are limited by law. It can make no contract not authorized by its charter. Its rights to act as a corporation are only preserved to it so long as it obeys the laws of its creation.”
- Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43 at 74 (1906)
So you can see that any type of legal entanglement on the churches part with government is to the detriment of the church.
In 1811 a bill was ratified by Congress to incorporate the Protestant Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, when the bill was presented to then President James Madison for his signature, he promptly vetoed the bill and in a veto message stated,
“Because the bill exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions, and violates in particular the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’ The bill enacts into and establishes by law sundry rules and proceedings relative purely to the organization and polity of the church incorporated… This particular church, therefore, would so far be a religious establishment by law, a legal force and sanction being given to certain articles in its constitution and administration.”
It would seem that President Madison understood that any legal recognition of the church by the government, even if such recognition was sought by the church, was beyond the original intent of the Constitution. It would seem as though he also understood that in seeking such recognition the churches were actually seeking a license, in essence the churches were seeking a legal statement that they had permission from the government to exist. But due to the First Amendment no such license is needed.
I know that there are many people out there who are looking to their churches and church leaders to speak out on the pressing social issues of the day, and they are not receiving that which they seek. I would say to those people, talk among your fellow parishioners, tell them that you and your churches need not be slave to the government just to retain a tax exemption that the government doesn’t even have the authority to bestow upon the churches. Tell them to throw off all the chains that government has placed upon their freedom to worship and to speak out on the issues that effect them and their families.
Even if they are forced somehow to pay taxes, would that not be better than the forced silence that they live under now?
I will leave you with the words Of President John Adams,
“The church is the moral compass of society.” But in order to remain a true and faithful compass, the church must remain separate and independent of the influences of that society, particularly its civil government. It must be a “free-church.” Should the church become subordinate, or in any way controlled or co-opted by the civil government (a “State-Church” system), it can no longer effectively serve as that society’s moral compass. Unless it is respected, no one will listen to what it has to say. ”