Religious Tax Exemption

Past, Present and Perfect

by Ed Harrell

In May, 1983 the Supreme Court revoked the tax-exempt status of two conservative schools, including Bob Jones University, because in the court’s opinion each practiced a form of racial discrimination. The ground for the decision was, basically, that a tax-exempt educational institution must “be in harmony with the public interest.” Since segregation clearly violates the current consensus of the “public interest,” the schools, though religious, were refused the privilege of tax-exempt status.

I have no intention of arguing here the merits of most of the elements in this important decision. I have long opposed segregation, and still do, though I have never believed that New Testament Christians considered themselves social reformers. I think it has been a consummate blessing to live in a secular state which  allows freedom of religious expression and would be happy to see all religious privilege disappear, including tax-exempt status. But I have little hope of ever seeing the United States government beard such financial giants as the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormons. If the court is interested in equity, I should think all Roman Catholic seminaries which refuse to admit women into study for the priesthood would soon lose their tax-exempt status.

Whatever one may think about those questions, there are two instructive points the ruling calls to my mind. First, the court drew a careful distinction between churches and other religious institutions. Otherwise, the ruling would have been a devastating blow to freedom of religion in America, requiring all churches to teach only such doctrines as agreed with the “public interest.” In making that distinction the court recognized what anti~institutional Christians have long argued—auxiliary institutions related to churches, however devout their caretakers, are fundamentally non-religious. They are necessarily involved in the provision of secular and social services which in a secular state are properly regulated by the government. I would also add that they are unscriptural, having no precedent in the recorded behavior of New Testament Christians. One might argue that the New Testament church was too young to have ancillary institutions. Such an argument misses the point of revelation; the Bible tells us what we need to know. It also ignores the potential of the church to always stay, young, fresh, and non-institutional. The time will likely come soon when a denomination will either be non-institutional or will be forced to bend its religious teachings to fit bureaucratic readings of the public interest.

A second, and more ominous, question raised by the Acourt’s ruling is the expansion of the governments regulatory powers into the area of religious belief. Whatever the court’s commitment to religious liberty, why should churches be allowed to openly teach doctrines which threaten the “public interest?” Surely the climate is warming for some patriot to propose the loss of tax exemption for any church which refuses to ordain women as ministers, or which disfellowships homosexuals. It is not inconceivable to me that in the lifetime of my children such beliefs would become illegal in the United States.

To say so is not to be an alarmist. Perhaps it will not be so; perhaps we shall be allowed to live on in the aberrant environment which has allowed every man to believe and say what he wished. But it has not always been so, nor is it so in most places in the world today, nor will it always be so if history continues.

l read a historical paper several years ago in the Orthodox Seminary in Bucharest, Romania. l expressed
to several of the priests there my thankfulness for the existence of religious freedom in the United States. “We have religious freedom here,” one replied. Somewhat surprised, I said, ”l don’t think you do.” “Oh, yes,” he replied, “We have twelve churches authorized by the government and you can belong to anyone of the twelve you choose.”

Why not twelve churches, or fifty, or two hundred at most? All of them in agreement with the “public interest,” none of them troublemakers, lt would be tidy, neat, patriotic, in the national interest. Just list your choice under your social security number. lt all sends a little chill up my backbone, “lf any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:16).

CHRISTIANITY MAGAZINE  FEBRUARY, 1984