Special treatment hurts both church and state

By Tom Ehrich
Posted Jan 18, 2012

[Religion News Service] It’s time for religion to lose its special treatment in the Constitution and in tax codes.

Not because religion has ceased to matter, but because it matters more than ever in our increasingly unethical society, and the special treatment ends up hurting both religion and state.

Three examples: hiring practices, tax-exempt property and tax-deductible donations.

The Supreme Court, continuing its string of unwise decisions, affirmed religious institutions’ right to discriminate in hiring practices. They play by their own special rules, the court reasoned, saying, in effect, that the so-called “separation clause” guards religion’s right to do the wrong thing.

Unfortunately, just as presidential candidates use religion to batter opponents and to appeal to the dark side of human nature, so will religion become an excuse to seek other exceptions to civil rights. If churches can discriminate, others will say, why can’t we? Bigots and unjust employers will have an open field for hurting the vulnerable.

Meanwhile, religion will stand out as a special preserve where children can be molested without legal consequence, and the usual rules of financial accountability and simple justice don’t apply. That won’t help religion’s cause one bit.

Their historic exemption from property taxes has encouraged faith communities to see property as their purpose, not mission and ministry. Many a church has clung to deteriorating facilities while mission languished and people seeking more than maintenance budgets departed. Finally the church closes its doors — and the community evaporates.

Yes, religious facilities have contributed much to architecture and scenic street corners, but both religion and society would be better served if those institutions saw their purpose as mission, their work as offering ministry, and each other as companions in a movement, not as disputatious property owners.

Tax-deductible donations, meanwhile, have virtually destroyed responsible Christian stewardship in many major denominations. Instead of following the biblical model of “harvest giving” and the biblical standard of the tithe, churches have fallen into treating their donations as “charitable giving.” Instead of first fruits, they get last fruits, whatever remains after everything else has been purchased.

Churches end up competing with museums, schools and medical causes for leftovers. That is a competition they cannot possibly win, because they don’t have the budget to do charitable fundraising effectively and religion’s prophetic cause — “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” — isn’t as appealing as good music or fighting cancer.

To protect tax exemption, religious leaders refrain from meddling in society’s doings. The Gospel demands such meddling. Society needs boldness, not self-protective hedging, from its faith communities. It needs strong preachers in the public square, even if that means violating the first rule of charitable giving: Be nice to the wealthy.

That weakened voice, in turn, deprives society of the ethical guidance that it badly needs. Not shrill scolding on esoterica, but bold words on justice and compassionate deeds to bind up society’s victims.

Whatever Thomas Jefferson meant by “separation of church and state,” it’s clear from our own history that we need God to be more active in the public square, not walled up in a special tax-sheltered preserve where, in exchange for staying silent, the religious are free to discriminate, play landowner and appease the wealthy.

Our special status has made us soft and, to our growing dismay, irrelevant.

— Tom Ehrich, a church consultant and Episcopal priest, is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.


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Comments (9)

  1. While I’m with you on the employment discrimination piece, I highly doubt that it is the tax-exempt status of property that has “encouraged faith communities to see property as their purpose, not mission and ministry.” First, I doubt 99% of the members of such churches even give the exemption from property taxes a thought. Second, it isn’t an either/or situation. A church building ideally is a center for mission and ministry, some of which might not happen in the absence of a building

    As far as tax-deductible donations go, I’m at a loss as to see how dropping churches from that would help. It would seem like people would then prefer to donate to charities rather than the church. If people are stewardship-minded, they aren’t going to consider the tax-exemption when pledging. If they are not, no tax-exemption or lack thereof is going to make them tithe or increase their giving. Personally, I’ll take all of the help from the government I can get….

  2. Paul Marshall says:

    Tom is a well-meaning, but not legally learned person. As one of our most famous jurists has observed, “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” Because it is quintessentially un-American to destroy a religion, we give them fairly free range. A little more research and, if I may say so, fact-checking, would give these columns more substance. It is something like an embarrassment for ENS to carry this column.

    Paul Marshall
    Bishop, Diocese of Bethelehem

    1. Tlhe Rev. Robert A. Terrill says:

      Rt. Rev. Sir: Your statement itself lacks knowledge and research. It is, in fact, prejudicial to one side of a fair question. Tom’s article makes a point and is without fault in the sense that it has a place in the conversation about the 21st century church. I agree to the extent that we are way over structured with 80% vacant buildings on Sunday mornings, diminishing resources and inflated diocesan budgets well beyond congregational ability to support. How about returning to the celtic model of traveling prebyter-bishops without dioceses. Just think, you could work out of your house or out of your car. Even a very high level excutive sales manager like my son works from home and communicates digitally. Oh well. Go ahead keep fixing up an old car. Eventually it’s no more repairable and has to be thrown away. That’s where the church is heading.

      1. (The Rev.) Ronald L. Reed says:

        Thanks, Bob. Very useful.

  3. (The Rev.) Ronald L. Reed says:

    Thank you! I hope your essay sparks a great deal of good, rational debate. You make many really good points. This discussion is desperately needed. As a stewardship leader and teacher for many decades, as someone who personally uncovered and helped reveal three embezzlements, starting with Ellen Cooke nationally (I was told to get out of 815 for truth-telling in ’91) and two parochial incidents, I am acutely aware of bad money management practices at all levels of the church hidden under laziness and false trust. We have a major reasons in mission and ethical witness to be held very financially accountable by church and state. As well, tax laws have allowed dying churches to let properties help turn neighborhoods worse; been there seen that my entire professional ministry.

  4. (The Rev.) Ronald L. Reed says:

    If Bp Marshall wishes to introduce the issue of fact checking, then please do so in detail instead throwing a wet episcopal blanket over the discussion. Shaming is a low form of authoritative witness, sir.

  5. John W Ward says:

    Thank you Tom for prompting a needed discussion. Things taken for granted need to be brought out of the dark at regular intervals to be appreciated and maybe even re-envigourated.

  6. Eric Funston says:

    I respect Tom Ehrich a lot, but this article misses the mark by a long-shot – he overstates his case. While there may be reasons to discontinue tax-exempt status (I disagree with that premise, I have to add), making patently false statements such as referring to religion as “a special preserve where children can be molested without legal consequence, and the usual rules of financial accountability and simple justice don’t apply” don’t help make the case. There is a string of judicial decisions going all the way up to SCOTUS clearly saying the rules of financial accountability DO apply to churches and religious institutions; child molesters are prosecuted and convicted (when not hidden away by unethical religious leaders); the requirements of secular justice (which is seldom “simple”) in most cases do apply to religion. Where the civil courts decline to act is in cases where religious doctrine has to be decided in order to reach a decision – who is a “true believer”? what is the “true church”? is a priest or pastor fit for office? Courts are not going to go there because of the First Amendment. I’ve not yet read the most recent SCOTUS decision on hiring practices, so I cannot comment on it, but for Tom to rest his case sweeping generalities which are inaccurate statements weakens his position.

    1. (The Rev.) Ronald L. Reed says:

      Thanks, very effective critique.

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