"Now's the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions." So headlines a Time magazine essay by Mark Oppenheimer which argues that the government should not be "subsidizing religion and non-profits."
He begins with organizations that dissent from the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, but he doesn't stop there. Oppenheimer claims that the IRS cannot and should not define "religion," and that wealthy tax-exempt organizations in poor towns are harming their localities. What of the services performed by religious institutions? Ending their tax exemptions would increase government revenues, which would then meet such needs. Or so he claims.
Oppenheimer makes exceptions for hospitals and other organizations which perform "an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good." And he allows that localities "could always carve out sensible property-tax exemptions for nonprofits their communities need." But he claims that the rest of the churches and non-profits in the U.S. need to lose their tax-exempt status, as soon as possible.
I have three questions. First, would the government really receive enough increased tax revenue to replace the services of the non-profit organizations his proposal threatens? Second, can the government really provide such services as well as the private sector? Third—and this is the crucial question—what happens if his proposal prevails?
For our purposes, let's limit his attack on non-profits to those which support biblical marriage. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that a school could forfeit its tax-exempt status if its policies "prescribe and enforce racially discriminatory admissions standards on the basis of religious doctrine." Change "racially" to "sexually," and you've described thousands of faith-based universities in America. Change "admissions" to "employment," and you've added thousands of faith-based organizations.
Gay rights activists have already stated that they're now going to seek protections in employment and housing. Presumably they will want legislation to cover employment and housing with religious organizations which support biblical marriage. Would a church that declines to hire a person in a same-sex marriage lose its tax exemption? Would a school that declines to offer same-sex spousal benefits or housing face the same? Would federal student loans be withdrawn? Would government assistance for various programs be threatened?
I hope Christians will respond to this worst-case scenario in two ways. First, let's do what we can to keep it from happening. Reasoned discourse with society and governmental leaders is essential. We need to show how our churches and ministries benefit all of society, not just our members. We need to show that government discrimination against religious beliefs violates both the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, and threatens anyone who holds religious convictions. And we need to support leaders who understand this issue. We will win this debate through reasoned discourse, not vitriolic complaints.
Second, let's keep our eyes on our omnipotent Lord. Jesus promised us that "your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8). Though imprisoned for his faith, Paul could still testify, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
Our omniscient King knows the future better than we know the present. (Tweet this) Whatever happens, we are in his hands. There's no safer place in all the world to be.
Publication date: June 30, 2015
For more from the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, please visit www.denisonforum.org.
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