What Constitutes A Church?

February 25, 2010

A number of individuals have recently submitted a letter to the Commissioner of the IRS complaining about the tax-exempt status of a religious organization. In a refreshing twist, those submitting the letter are not atheists or humanists, but clergy. Their beef is that the organization in question - the notorious C Street Center in Washington, DC - is masquerading as a church. By improperly claiming status as religious institution, the C Street Center is undermining the "legitimacy" of the tax exemption granted to churches and other religious bodies.

For those not familiar with the C Street Center, it is an establishment that has provided spiritual advice to sexually wayward public officials such as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Senator John Ensign. Apparently, it is the "go-to" place for conservative politicians who have had or are having an affair - a fact that resulted in the C Street Center being lampooned mercilessly in Doonesbury last summer and to the house being dubbed the "Prayboy Mansion." The C Street Center also provides discounted room and board to several members of Congress, who apparently join together for occasional Bible study or prayer. The Center also holds weekly prayer breakfasts and dinners (what? no brunch?) to which all members of Congress are invited.

Because the C Street Center has a close association with a number of elected officials, the complaining clergy maintain in their letter to the Commissioner that its tax exemption undermines the separation of church and state, and opens the door to corruption of government through inappropriate religious influence.

I applaud the clergy for standing up for the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. However, it seems to me that a more effective way to address their concern would be to stop granting tax-exempt status to all religious organizations. Religious institutions would then be free from government oversight and could organize their activities as they see fit, whether the activities in question are revivals, prayer marathons, midnight vigils, snake handling fests, fight clubs for young men (see my other post today), or Bible-based sexual counseling for legislators.

And no taxpayer would have to support activities that violate their freedom of conscience.

Comments:

#1 CybrgnX (Guest) on Thursday February 25, 2010 at 4:25pm

Yes we are suppose to have church-state separation.
That does not mean they should be tax exempt or their preachers income tax exempt.
Anything they want to be a church - can be, but everyone except those that are recognized charities, pays taxes like anyone else or any other BUSINESS.
The ‘churches’ have been and will always try to influence there members to vote their way so lets admit it and make us all the same.
I’m sick to death of subsidizing these people.
Allow any to be a church because it wont matter.

#2 asanta on Friday February 26, 2010 at 10:33pm

I think they did take away the tax exempt status due to violations.

#3 Ronald A. Lindsay on Saturday February 27, 2010 at 10:23am

Asanta: My understanding is that the District of Columbia government limited, but did not remove entirely, the C Street Center’s exemption from local property taxes (DC found about one-third of the property qualified for exempt status), but as of now the Center still has a federal tax exemption.

#4 jerrys on Monday March 01, 2010 at 11:21am

I support the idea of getting rid of tax exempt status for religious organizations.  But beware the law of unintended consequences.  I recently attended a forum on the “Johnson Amendment”.  Thats the rule that says non-profits (including religious organizations) can’t endorse candidates.  Getting rid of the tax exempt status would presumably also get rid of that rule.

#5 TPO (Guest) on Monday March 01, 2010 at 1:32pm

Jerrys: 

Good point but what good is that rule really when religious organizations already get away with ignoring it on a daily basis.

#6 jerrys on Monday March 01, 2010 at 5:49pm

@tpo

That’s a bit like asking what good are speed limits when people speed routinely.  The existence of the rule and the occasional enforcement moderates the amount of violation. 

At any rate the rule itself is pretty weak.  It forbids churches (and clergy) from saying “vote for X” or “don’t vote for Y”.  It allows them to say “don’t vote for any pro choice candidate” or “vote for prop 8”.

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