New York Times takes on First Amendment

church state 01Some newspapers win Pulitzers through tenacious reporting, excellent prose and productive teamwork. The New York Times, which truly is one of my favorite papers, sometimes wins its Pulitzers by wielding its institutional clout, pulverizing readers with story after story about some expansive issue -- seemingly dictated by editorial fiat rather than reader interest. Who else suffered through that laughably bad Augusta National Golf Club bombardment? Apparently then-editor Howell Raines decided that the greatest problem facing America in 2002 was the failure of Augusta National to admit women as members. Never mind that Augusta National is a private club in a free country and that women could and did play the course as much as they liked. Yep, we needed to be treated to 40-plus news stories, columns and editorials about the horrors facing wealthy folks in Georgia.

And then there was that cloying Race in America series in 2000. And yes, it won a Pulitzer. I kind of imagine the Pulitzer committee decided on the award as a means to get the Times to just stop with all the stories already.

Compared to those sanctimonious series, the four-parter that ran this week isn't so bad. Sure, it's a guns-blazing attack on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, but what do you expect from the Times?

I kid, I kid. I kid because I love.

The breathlessly titled In God's Name series examines how churches benefit from a historically liberal interpretation of the First Amendment. The first story, weighing in at almost 5,000 words, focuses on regulatory exemptions for religious organizations that run social services. Day two focused on rights of employees at religious organizations. The third installment was about revenue bond financing for religious groups. Part four is about the tax-exemption bounty that awaits members of the clergy. Part four made me want to ask my dad -- a pastor -- why we were so poor growing up. Seriously, if The New York Times is to be believed, my parents need to explain the powdered milk and hand-me-downs. While I talk to them, you can peruse all the articles, graphics and supporting multimedia here.

Business reporter Diana Henriques covers an incredibly interesting topic. It's safe to say that the understanding of how the government treats religious entities has varied over time. I'm on record as someone concerned about government financing or support of any and all religious entities. We'll look at the series in a few posts to see how well Henriques handled the weighty and complex questions. Here's how she sets up her central thesis on day one:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide "war on religion" that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations -- from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples -- enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation's history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years -- sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized "earmarks" benefiting other special interests.

Now, maybe it's just my economics background, but is the story here the expansion of the First Amendment or the overwhelming expansion of regulation? It means nothing at all that there is an increase in exemptions for religious organizations without knowing how many additional regulatory burdens there are overall! In other words, if there are 2,000 additional regulations facing all nonprofit organizations and 200 additional exemptions for churches written into legislation (anonymously! gasp! and with little attention! gasp!), then that's a net of 1,800 additional regulations on churches. I don't know what the actual numbers are, but all I could think of while reading the piece was how regulatory burdens have increased exponentially in the last 50 years.

Because of the increase in regulations, I would be surprised if the government did not write a significant number of exemptions for religious organizations -- if only to keep on the right side of the law. And Henriques' shady comparison of earmarks -- directly funneling money to specific people -- with the lifting of regulatory burdens is choice, if I may borrow a word from my childhood.

I find it incredibly funny that the solution the Times envisions for a disparity between regulatory burden for churches and other groups is to jack up regulations on nonprofits. I don't think Henriques talked to a single person -- even though there are many who would have loved to make this point -- who said that they believe American businesses, nonprofits and individuals are drowning in a flood of regulations.

establishment clauseEither way, when dealing with a contentious topic, reporters should be careful to source everything:

The changes reflect, in part, the growing political influence of religious groups and the growing presence of conservatives in the courts and regulatory agencies. But these tax and regulatory breaks have been endorsed by politicians of both major political parties, by judges around the country, and at all levels of government.

That's the paper of record, folks. How come my editors never let me write broad and unsubstantiated statements such as these? I feel like the standards should be lower for me than for flashy Times reporters.

She hammers the idea that religious exemptions cost society. While churches don't pay property taxes, for instance, they are served by police departments. (Let's not hold our breath for Henriques' next series on why the poor should not have their fires extinguished.) But readers would be better served by her mentioning that congregations are full of taxpaying members. She might also have mentioned that some people don't believe in double taxation at all.

I love the idea that a business reporter would look into these issues. But I think the series would have benefited from more economic balance. It definitely would have helped to have Laurie Goodstein or another religion reporter on board. Heck, Linda "I am the Alpha and Omega of all things Factual" Greenhouse would have been helpful! Knowing, for instance, that different religions have different views on female pastors, homosexuality, debt, usury and insurance could help explain why the federal government would be violating the Establishment Clause if it mandated that religious entities follow regulations on same.

Stay tuned for more coverage on the series.

Photo via Riles3821 on Flickr.

Please respect our Commenting Policy