Back when I was doing my master's degree in church-state studies -- during an earlier era at Baylor's J.M. Dawson Institute -- one of the hot questions was this: Legally speaking, what is a "religion" and who gets to define what is and what is not a religion?
It's an old question and there are no signs that it's going away. Take, for example, those online services that will ordain you as a minister. Does a piece of paper from such an operation mean that you have the legal protections provided to clergy? How about your tax status?
You can see related questions surface in debates about, oh, the First Church of Cannabis. Is smoking weed and seeking enlightenment a tax-exempt, protected faith activity? Well, what if the people making this drug-related claim are Native Americans and the tradition goes back for centuries?
More? How about the status of Scientology in Germany?
So how do you know you are dealing with a fake or warped religious group? What was drummed into us, in our texts and lectures, was a threefold test stating that governments have every right to investigate religious groups that appear to be linked to (a) fraud, (b) profit or (c) clear threat the life and health.
But state tax officials are going to do what tax officials are going to do, which is look for more revenue.
Back in the 1980s a Colorado official decided that church-based day-care centers were not "religious." What about a non-profit organization that existed to produce books and audio-video materials for use by missionaries? That wasn't "religious," either.
It seemed like old times reading a recent piece at The Atlantic that ran under this epic double-stack headline:
Should Courts Get to Define Religion?
The Massachusetts Supreme Court will decide whether a local shrine should be tax-exempt -- a decision that could have broad implications for faith organizations in America.
At the center of the dispute is the Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette in Attleboro or, to be precise, some sections of the shrine's property.
... In recent years, the City of Attleboro, nestled between Providence and Boston, has faced a tightening budget. It began looking to see where it could collect more revenue. The shrine, the only major tourist attraction in town, was an obvious target for tax collectors.
The city valued the property at $12.8 million, all of which had previously been exempt. But in 2013, officials decided that $4.9 million of that value represented property not used for religious worship or instruction. They declared that a maintenance shed, coffee shop, conference rooms, and a religious bookstore -- along with the forest preserve that covers more than half the campus -- are used for secular purposes. The shrine, the city decided, had to pay up, and received a $92,000 tax bill.
So is a non-profit religious bookstore "religious"? What if it sells coffee? Is it a religious activity to mow the grass of a sprawling shrine that is covered with holy art? Is prayer truly "prayer" only when it occurs in a sanctuary, as opposed to on a trail in a religious park or encampment?
Big questions -- precisely the kinds of questions courts have traditionally avoided rather than become "entangled" in disputes about religious doctrine.
Journalists, you really need to read this piece. But here is a key passage that tells you more about the stakes in this argument:
Faith leaders from across Massachusetts ... filed a brief in support of the shrine. “The notion that local assessors or any government actor is equipped or would presume to deem whether one use of a religious organization's property or another falls within the definition of ‘religious worship’ is antithetical to religious freedom,” said the brief, signed by leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also weighed in, arguing in a brief that the shrine’s grounds offer “communion with nature,” which “is a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”
As the justices weigh whether or not different parts of the shrine’s property are taxable, visitors to the campus have said they use it for a variety of purposes, both sacred and profane. Kristine Ramierez visits for the open space. The 26-year-old Catholic heads to the shrine a few times each month to attend Mass and lead retreats geared toward Catholic families. During these gatherings, she said, it’s not uncommon to light a candle in one of the indoor chapels and then head outside to pray and meditate, perhaps taking a seat in one of the gardens or venturing out to the nearby pond, where the church gets its holy water.
“Normally, in our own lives, we go from building to building and there’s not a lot of open space, which I think is needed for clearing your mind,” she said. The grounds of the shrine are perfect for this, she continued, calling them “very peaceful and meditative.”
If the justices rule that shrines’ grounds are taxable, the results could be devastating for other religious organizations. Although it’s very difficult to know the worth of property owned by these groups in the U.S., some estimates put the value at more than $600 billion—no small amount when it comes to the potential tax windfall that could bolster shrinking state and local government budgets. That number doesn’t even include all the bookstores, daycares, coffee shops, and other facilities often affiliated with houses of worship. The real figure may be much greater: In a single Florida county, for example, the value of property exempted from taxation under religious exemptions totaled $1.2 billion,according to a 2007 study.
The Court’s decision could also empower other municipalities to take a closer look at tax-exempt properties in their own jurisdictions as possible cash cows. Other religious organizations in Massachusetts are monitoring the case, fearful that their own assets could be the next targets for taxation. And it’s not uncommon for state judges to look to other jurisdictions for guidance or for federal courts to consider trends in the states as they rule on similar cases.
A trend seems to be emerging. Authorities in Tennessee decided in 2013, for example, that a bookstore and gym on the campus of an evangelical megachurch were not exempt from property taxes under existing law. Officials in Ohio decided in 2012 that church dormitories for visitors are taxable.
So once again we see a familiar trend. Freedom of WORSHIP is protected, but the free exercise of religion -- in terms of activities outside church doors -- may not be. Note that this requires the state to decide what is worship and what is not.
A Bible study is OK. The facility -- at the church, selling religious instruction materials -- is not OK (in terms of taxes). A sanctuary for worship is OK, but the lodge in which worshipers stay while attending a prayer retreat is not.
Leaders of other content-based non-profit groups may want to pay attention, since tax-status questions may be headed their way and non-profit groups are supposed to be handled in a content-neutral way. Or is religious expression -- strongly protected in the First Amendment -- now a uniquely dangerous subject and activity?