What does it take to get me and my Church-State Guy pen to come out and play again? Well… making gay-marriage legal in all 50 states with one ruling pretty much does it.
There’s a lot that has been said everywhere about the ruling itself. But the thing that lingers over a lot of religious folks’ minds is more the implications for religious clergy and congregations directly. Stated more specifically:
Will Clergy go to Jail for Refusing to Marry Gay Couples?
Will Churches lose their Tax Exempt Status if they Don’t Marry Gay Couples?
Predictably, the responses to these questions are extreme. While far lefters say “No way in HELL is your precious little bigoted church going to lose it’s tax status for continuing to be bigoted!” the far righters simply say: “That’s it… it’s the beginning of the end. We knew this was coming. We’re a persecuted people, and America is lost; going to Hell in a handbasket.”
And, just as predictably, neither is fully true or false.
Precedent for Anxiety over Losing Tax Status
There are a lot of folks way smarter than me that can explain this way better than I can. But I’ll summarize and reference as clearly as I can:
- Churches CAN lose their tax exempt status for a lot of things. A tax exemption is not a right, it’s a privilege that is given to non profit organizations for the ways in which they enhance American society. If the Federal Government finds that a particular religion is promoting ideals that go against civil rights (as defined by U.S. Law) then it becomes prudent for the State to reconsider whether that privilege should be extended to that particular organization. So, it is in the realm of possibility, and pretending it is not is not helpful.
- Religious organizations have lost in court on civil rights matters in the past. Most famously, the case against Bob Jones University when they wanted to prohibit interracial couples from attending their University (I don’t link to Wikipedia because it’s “authoritative”, but rather because it’s very easily read and understood and a great launching pad for your own investigations into these issues). The IRS declared that BJU no longer qualified for their tax exempt privilege because of their religious belief that people from different races should not marry. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court and SCOTUS upheld the IRS’s action and position.
- There’s another recent religion-wedding ruling that is still strong in many Christians’ minds: The Wedding Cake Ruling. A local bakery refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. They lost in court. The court ruled in favor of the gay couple, they had to pay a fine and court fees, they had to change their company policies to be in line with the Colorado nondiscriminatory practices laws, they also had to change their employee training and report on all those changes and whether they had refused more service for the next two years.
So, it’s not only in the realm of possibility that churches could lose their tax exempt status, but there is even precedent for it happening specifically with regard to religious beliefs around marriage.
Reasons Religious Communities and Clergy Should Not Fear
In the realm of “But WILL it happen?” this is mostly based on the principles of the separation of Church and State and far more precedent than the Bob Jones University case.
- Bob Jones is a University, not a place of worship and was not providing religious services. Instead, it provided education and it’s tax exempt status was based on its religious affiliation and business model. Again, tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, and that privilege was removed from that institution for its discriminatory practices regarding education, which does not affect the denominations ability to continue to NOT extend marriage services to inter-racial couples.
- Cake is not “Free Speech” or an “Exercise of Religion”. That is the heart of the ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop. Masterpiece is a for profit bakery; they do not provide religious services. If you still have doubts about this, consider when there were public water faucets for blacks and whites. The kinds of civil rights protections we have today for water should equally be extended to sugar and flour, don’t you think? So, while it is understandable that the State could find the bakery’s practices unlawful, that does not have any direct bearing on whether ministers choose to marry two individuals.
- Churches still have many beliefs that are violate the equality of civil rights and are not in fear of losing their tax exempt status. Many denominations still to this day do not ordain women or homosexuals. Though churches (and synagogues and mosques) obviously fall far short of federal hiring standards (Equal Rights Under the Law, Employment Discrimination), they still don’t pay taxes.
- Lastly, pastors choose not to marry individuals for all kinds of reasons without repercussions or anxiety. Pastors might refuse to marry a couple because of a history of divorce, or the couple not being ready for marriage, or they want to get married on a beach not a church, and — yes, even now — because the couple is interracial, or even just because the couple is black. All of those choices that clergy make happen regularly across the nation and none of those churches are in fear of losing their tax exempt status. This is the nail in coffin of this argument as far as I’m concerned.
Do Not Fear for Your Tax Exempt Status
In summary, while it is not out of the scope of possibility, it is highly — HIGHLY — unlikely that any church will lose their tax exempt status in connection with this recent SCOTUS ruling.
For the record, I fully support any churches ability to refuse marriage to anyone based on their religious doctrines. That is and should be a protected First Amendment right and part and parcel of what it means to have a “free exercise of religion”. As a Christian, I also encourage every denomination to examine their doctrine in light of Scripture and ask whether a particular teaching or doctrine stands against one simple question: “What is required for salvation?” Are we leading by example with regard to Jesus’ unequivocal, universal salvation for all humanity, or are we discriminating and creating a hierarchy of holiness based on non-essentials?
Resources for Reading
Seriously, I’d rather not encourage comments on this thread unless you’ve read all of these sources. It’s a complex subject not to be taken lightly, and I’d rather engage with folks with a vested interest and who’ve done their homework. That’s how good these links are. Thanks!
- Best Scholarly article answering the questions my article raises.
- Summary of SCOTUS Blog articles regarding the ruling
- The ruling on Bob Jones vs. United States
- Summary of everything relevant to religious liberty that was mentioned in the Gay Marriage ruling.
- Orthodox academic David Dunn’s commentary on New York’s ruling to legalize gay marriage back in 2011
- Jesuit priest Father James Martin’s response to the Gay Marriage ruling.