Keeping Church Separated From Secular Governance Charts A Near Impossible Road

By Donald A. Collins | 26 September 2013
Church and State

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa): “The constitution does not require the government to exempt churches from federal income taxation or from filing tax and information returns.” (Source: The Economist)

As a long time believer in Mr. Darwin and in only the continuing existence of some of my molecules, not anything even vaguely resembling my present body and mind, I recently visited my beloved, but far away, sister and her marvelous husband, who, as active members of an Anglican church, persuaded me to attend services with them this past Sunday.

Despite my once parent guided membership in a Protestant church, my attendance in any church or synagogue has for many years been limited to formal occasions such as funerals, weddings and Bar or Bat Mitvahs.

But the reception I received as the brother of treasured members was warm and embracing, something we humanists find difficult to duplicate.

Why? Well, because we simply don’t have such meeting places which weekly spew out the set, monotheistic rituals of subservience combined with their endless assurances of love and survival.

Full stop. And don’t forget, as E.O. Wilson reminded us, we are all members of a tribe or more than one and in gaining tribal membership in these churches for many involves the enhancement of commercial opportunity! Yes, I buy your religion, you buy my merchandise!!

As for the opportunity to use the bully pulpits of all religions to tout political positions, examples are so rife as to hardly bear repeating, but of course they do so daily in overwhelming flows, completely ignoring the laws which give them tax exemption in the USA and license elsewhere to run things.

The USA may not be quite an Ayatollah run Iran, but we surely are a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, you name it impacted nation. Hiding behind the free speech amendment of our Constitution presents for observance of separation a permanent conundrum to us all.

And it is not going to change as this article in Illinois Review describes:

According to Liberty Counsel, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has officially reported that it is not auditing churches because it does not have the authority to take away churches’ tax-free status.

For years, leftist groups, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), have used deception and fear tactics to censor the church and muzzle pastors. A recent letter to religious leaders by Executive Director Barry Lynn inaccurately said, “If the IRS determines that your house of worship has engaged in unlawful intervention, it can revoke the institution’s tax-exempt status.”

An IRS spokesman said last week that the agency has been inundated with complaints, but they are not going to do any audits because they do not have the authority to do so. “Churches are tax-exempt inherently,” said Mat Staver. “They don’t need a letter from the IRS to be tax exempt, so their tax-exempt status cannot be taken away by the IRS.”

No church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for opposing or supporting a candidate for political office. Churches and pastors may speak on Biblical and moral issues. They can educate about the candidates’ viewpoints. They can encourage people to vote and can assist them in getting to the polls. This year Liberty Counsel has sent over 100,000 copies of its Take Back America: Silence is NOT an Option to pastors and church leaders around America, to encourage pastors and church leaders to speak truth to this generation.

More pastors have been involved this year than ever before, even pastors who have been silenced in the past. Rev. Billy Graham is running full-page advertisements in a number of newspapers across the country, urging voters to vote for candidates that support Biblical values of life, natural marriage, and religious liberty. “This is unprecedented for the world’s best-known evangelist,” said Staver. “Billy Graham has always steered clear of politics. In reality, Billy Graham has merely raised his prophetic voice like any preacher should when Biblical and moral values are placed in jeopardy by politicians,” said Staver.

John MacArthur, a well-known pastor and author, who was against Christian political activism, has had a dramatic change of heart. “I was amazed that one of the historic parties in the U.S. adopted the sins of Romans 1 as their platform,” said MacArthur in a recent Sunday morning sermon. “This is a new day in our country. Parties that used to differ on economics, now differ dramatically on issues that invade the realm of God’s law and morality.”

“I am beginning to see more and more pastors waking up and realizing that Biblical and moral issues are under attack and they have no choice but to speak,” Staver said. “This isn’t politics; it is Biblical and moral issues that have been politicized.”

Liberty Counsel is an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.

In fact, churches or religious places of worship need not apply as they are automatically exempt from taxes unless they have activities which engage in businesses which produce profits.

That will be very tough to determine in most cases as this IRS quote demonstrates:

Congress has imposed special limitations, found in section 7611 of the Internal Revenue Code, on how and when the IRS may conduct civil tax inquiries and examinations of churches. The IRS may begin a church tax inquiry only if an appropriate high-level Treasury official reasonably believes, on the basis of facts and circumstances recorded in writing, that an organization claiming to be a church or convention or association of churches may not qualify for exemption, may be carrying on an unrelated trade or business (within the meaning of IRC § 513), may otherwise be engaged in taxable activities or may have entered into an IRC § 4958 excess benefit transaction with a disqualified person.

That will indeed be the day, Folks. Then there is this clear analysis of why religions has a virtually law free, tax free, speech free, conduct free chance to attack those of us who will not kneel to the subservience of the beliefs of their fantasy land ideas.

Every time I talk about Pulpit Freedom Sunday, I inevitably get a comment from an audience member that goes something like this, “You know, if churches just unincorporated, they wouldn’t be subject to the IRS,” or “Because churches aren’t required to apply for tax exemption, they aren’t subject to 501(c)(3) of the tax code.” People have told me that churches have willingly gagged themselves in exchange for tax exemption and that they should just unincorporate or give up their exemption letter from the IRS and they could then be free to do what they want. Behind these questions and statements lies an admirable heart for the independence of the church. But these also demonstrate a fundamental and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of the law.

This misunderstanding has been propagated in different ways through the years in movements, booklets, and websites. The basic argument is that churches are free and if they don’t incorporate or ask for tax exemption from the government, then the IRS can’t regulate them or force them to pay income taxes (or do anything else for that matter).

This view is wrong under the law as it exists today. But in order to understand this, we need to take a few steps back. Churches are unique in that they enjoy a special status under the tax code. Normally, to be considered exempt from income taxes, an organization must apply for an exemption from the IRS and demonstrate that it meets the requirements to be considered one of the exempt categories of section 501(c) of the tax code. Every organization that does not fall within one of the exempt categories of section 501(c) of the tax code is considered taxable.

But churches are different. Under section 508(c)(1)(A) of the tax code, churches are exempt from applying to the IRS for tax exempt status. Thus, churches are automatically exempt from income taxes under the federal tax code without first applying to the IRS for recognition of exempt status.

Those of us who are members of so called non profit organizations which advocate policy changes and are subject to very different rules about how we operate. Thus, the supreme irony!

These non religious NGOs will forever be behind the capacity of the religious entities of the USA to advocate legislation in our so called republic which our Founders wanted free from religious entanglements.

None of us favor limitations on free speech, save perhaps yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, but the Snowden affair and the harsh WikiLeaks corporal sentencing prompts the question of how far for example the Catholic Church can go in urging its supplicants to ignore the Rule of Law and welcome all immigrants to American to fill the pews of its churches. Their Bishops are preaching that the only criteria is “Love them”!!, regardless of whether these aliens are legal or illegal, criminal or not, needed or unneeded, rich or poor, skilled or unskilled, young or old.

Makes one wonder if our beset government can ever govern sensibly in the face of these untrammeled religious forces.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Guess what? All you need to start a non-profit church is to have a place to meet regularly (home), regular attendance (family) and offer some charity (donate to Goodwill). I’ve read the tax code for starting a 501c3 and it’s ridiculously easy to do. I should start a church in the privacy of my own home…I mean, what’s the chances of the IRS auditing me? Less than zero, according to this article. I may have something here.

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