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5 Ways Churches Get Preferential Treatment and Benefit from Legal Loopholes

U.S. law is honeycombed with examples of special benefits that organized religions enjoy.

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Observed the newspaper, “Since the clergy sex-abuse scandal exploded anew in 2002, Catholic leaders have taken the brunt of the blame. Overlooked is the role of police, prosecutors and judges – the people expected to hold abusers accountable when the church itself will not. Law enforcement typically has helped through inaction, but sometimes the aid has been direct.”

Efforts by victims to hold top church officials accountable have been stymied by the U.S. government. When victims charged in one lawsuit that Pope Benedict XVI had helped cover up the sexual abuse of children by priests, the Bush administration filed a legal brief asking the court to dismiss the case, arguing in part that the Vatican is a sovereign nation. Similar lawsuits have been filed since then, and the Obama administration has taken the same stand.

3. Political Lobbying

Non-profit groups that want to lobby Congress in Washington, DC, are subjected to strict rules. There are limits on the amount of lobbying these groups can do and the amount of money they can spend on such efforts. The rules for what constitutes lobbying and who qualifies as a lobbyist go on in mind-numbing detail. Non-profits must file detailed quarterly reports. Violations of these regulations can result in fines and even revocation of lobbying privileges.

Religious groups are exempt from all of this. Have you ever wondered how much money the Catholic hierarchy spends lobbying against abortion or marriage equality in DC? Too bad, because the bishops aren’t required to tell anyone.

Laws in the states vary, but most have limited or no regulations that provide oversight of lobbying by religious groups. Many houses of worship resist even minimal disclosure of their spending on political issues. When officials in Montana attempted to require a church to disclose what it had spent supporting a 2004 ballot vote to ban same-sex marriage – arguing that every other group that worked on the issue had to file – the church claimed that giving this information to the public would violate its rights. It filed a lawsuit in federal court and won.

4. Employment Law

People who work for houses of worship and ministries have little protection when it comes to being summarily fired from their jobs. This is to be expected with clergy, but the law seems to be moving to a place where even people in clerical positions and other slots without specific religious duties can be let go at will.

In the secular workforce, laws protect whistle-blowers from retaliation. These laws don’t apply to religious groups in many cases. Women clergy have been fired for reporting sexual harassment in churches. Ministers who are subjected to forms of bias – be it based on race, gender or sexual orientation, have no recourse in the law.

To many legal observers, this makes a certain amount of sense for clergy. The Catholic Church can’t be forced to hire women priests, for example. But some ministries have taken to declaring all of their employees as “ministerial,” a designation that allows them to manage staff with no oversight or protections for employees.

Religious private schools are governed by similar rules. They are free to fire staff for any number of “moral” offenses. Women have been fired for getting pregnant out of wedlock; other teachers have been let go after being outed as gay. This happens even in states where religious schools receive taxpayer support through vouchers, tax credits and other mechanisms.

5. Ceremonial Uses of Religion

Government is supposed to be neutral on matters of theology – in theory. In reality, the government leans on religion pretty frequently, especially for ceremonial purposes. In the process, it creates a symbiotic relationship and a climate of preferential treatment that similarly situated secular groups don’t get.

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