Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Religious persecution in the US?

Robert Boston in The ultimate guide to debunking right-wingers’ insane persecution fantasies Salon 03/16/2014 addresses an issue I'm finding increasingly disturbing, the false claims by fundamentalists Christians that Christians are being persecuted in the United States on a widespread and official basis.

Boston makes a number of good points on this. Like these on the very favorable tax treatment religious groups get:

  • Religious groups enjoy complete tax exemption, a very powerful and sought-after benefit.
  • Unlike secular nonprofit groups, houses of worship are not required to apply for tax-exempt status. They receive it by mere dint of their existence. Houses of worship are assumed to be tax exempt as soon as they form. This exemption is rarely examined again and is revoked only in cases of extreme fraud (such as someone claiming that the entity he or she has formed is a church when it’s really a for-profit business).
  • Houses of worship are free from the mandatory reporting obligations that are imposed on secular nonprofit groups. For example, secular groups that are tax-exempt must fill out a detailed financial form and submit it to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) every year. This document, called a Form 990, must be made available for public inspection. Houses of worship and ministries are not required to fill out and submit these forms.
  • Religious entities are not required to report their wealth to any government agency. The question often comes up about how much money houses of worship raise every year or what the value of the land they hold is. There is no way of knowing this because they are not required to tell anyone.
  • The IRS has the power to audit individuals and secular groups at the merest suspicion of wrongdoing or financial irregularities. Houses of worship, by contrast, are very difficult for the IRS to audit. This is so because Congress passed a special law governing church audits that requires the IRS to show heightened scrutiny before initiating such procedures. In addition, church audits must be approved by highly placed IRS officials.
These are tax treatments that in practical fact constitute a discrimination in favor of religious organizations, though not in favor of particular religions. They have a long tradition and, as far as I'm aware, are well-established in law.

I have concerns about some of that favorable treatment. The Clinton Administration, for instance, was willing to recognize Scientology as a church for purposes of federal tax treatment. There are real concerns about the cult aspects of Scientology. And there is a substantive policy concern about whether the tax code should subsidize practices that are demonstratively dangerous and abusive. And, yes, that might also affect churches that are irresponsible in how they treat sex abuse by their clergy.

I'm personally in favor of the basic tax treatment of churches as non-profit entities. Boston may be overstating the case a bit on profit-making operations that are part of churches. My understanding is that there the tax code does make distinctions between profit-making business and other church operations. There are also some limits on overt political activity. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition group lost out a number of years ago in a dispute with the IRS about its activities devoted to political advocacy being treated as non-profit church activities.

But it's also important to recognize that even if all special tax treatment for religious institutions were eliminated, that in itself would not be discrimination against religion, much less persecution. It would be doing away with the current discriminatory tax treatment in favor of religious institutions.

Here are a couple of pieces from mainstream (non-fundamentalist) Christian perspectives that put this discrimination-against-Christians claim into some more realistic context:

Steve Thorngate, Whose views on religious freedom changed? Christian Century 03/13/2014:

Religious freedom may be the rallying cry of much of the right, but only recently. People used to talk about religious freedom less, and when they did they were often liberals. ...

the larger point is that this whole affair isn't just about competing claims of nondiscrimination vs. religious freedom. It's also about the fact that religion freedom seems to mean different things to different people at different times. And while the law may treat religious liberty the same whether the religion in question is large and powerful or small and marginal, the social and political implications can be quite different.
Mark Silk, The conservative shift on religious liberty Religion News Service 03/13/2014 (which Thorngate also cites):

This is not to say that conservative religious bodies didn’t support the original RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. But they didn’t see religious freedom threatened then the way they claim it is today. The Catholic bishops conference, for example, only reluctantly joined the pro-RFRA coalition, fearing that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, someone would claim a religious right to abortion. Now that that their ox is being gored, religious liberty has become so important a cause they've mounted an annual Fortnight for Freedom on its behalf.
for more on the RFRA, see Religious Freedom Restoration Act: 20 years of protecting our first freedom from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Now that segregationists are using religious exemption arguments to challenge antidiscrimination laws and concepts, claims of religious persecution of Christians coming from predominately white Christian fundamentalists groups and outlets deserved especially critical scrutiny.

Challenges to birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) are the cutting edge of this approach right now. Marty Lederman has posted a helpful Compendium of posts on Hobby Lobby and related cases from the Balkinization legal blog (currently dated 03/17/2014).

Tags: ,

No comments: