5 Ways Churches Get Preferential Treatment and Benefit from Legal Loopholes
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Many conservative religious leaders insist that houses of worship in America today struggle under intense persecution. To hear some of the Catholic bishops tell it, religious freedom may soon be a memory because they don’t always get their way in policy debates.
It would be highly ironic if the United States, the nation that perfected religious liberty and enshrined it in the Constitution’s First Amendment, had become hostile to the rights of religious groups.
But that’s not what’s happening. In reality, U.S. law is honeycombed with examples of preferential treatment and special breaks for religion. Some of these practices may grow out of the First Amendment command that the “free exercise” of religion must not be infringed. Others are traditions or were added to the law after lobbying efforts by religious groups.
Here are five ways American law extends protections and preference to houses of worship.
1. Tax Policy
Tax exemption is given to a variety of religious and secular groups, but in the case of houses of worship, they get one huge advantage: They are tax exempt by mere dint of their existence. They don’t have to apply for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, nor, absent highly unusual circumstances or blatant law-breaking, can they lose it.
Contrast this with secular non-profits. If a group of people get together and decide to solicit donations to protect endangered species, they have to apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS, fill out voluminous paperwork and jump through various hoops. If the IRS has problems with the application or determines that endangered species won’t really be protected, tax-exempt status can be denied.
The IRS closely monitors secular non-profits to ensure that they are operating within the law. For example, tax-exempt groups are supposed to serve the public good, not enrich individuals. If non-profit executives receive compensation packages that the IRS determines to be too high, the IRS can act against those groups.
In theory, this could happen to a religious organization as well – except that it never does. Numerous media outlets have exposed the high-flying lifestyles of TV preachers, many of whom own fleets of cars, numerous mansions and even personal jets. Prodded by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a Senate committee began looking into some of these abuses a few years ago, but in the end, the only thing that emerged was a tepid report that was quickly shelved.
IRS audit procedures also favor churches. Congress actually passed a special law requiring the IRS to institute heightened procedures before auditing a house of worship. The IRS can audit a secular non-profit at the drop of a hat. The procedures for auditing houses of worship are so onerous that few, if any, have ever been audited – even where there’s evidence of financial irregularities.
(By the way, tax exemption for churches is not a constitutional right. The Constitution says nothing about tax exemption for anyone. The practice has long roots in Western culture, but it’s not enshrined in the Constitution.)
2. Criminal Investigations
The sentencing of Catholic cleric Msgr. William J. Lynn of Philadelphia to three to six years imprisonment for knowingly covering up evidence of clerical abuse of children by priests captured national headlines – because it was so unusual.
Lynn is the only church official sentenced to date in a long-running scandal implicating Catholic clergy nationwide. Victims of clerical abuse have had to resort to civil lawsuits to get justice, and even there have encountered numerous roadblocks.
Plenty of evidence indicates that church officials knowingly reassigned offending priests to other parishes instead of alerting law enforcement. In one especially egregious incident, a year-long investigation by the Dallas Morning News in 2004 found that priests accused of child molestation were often given special treatment by law enforcement, and in some cases priests from other countries were allowed to return home.