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.