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Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th, everybody. This is certainly a day to celebrate the various forms of freedom that Americans cherish — including some that are pretty confusing, when push comes to shove.

I am thinking, in particular, about the First Amendment and the edgy legal battle that is unfolding here in Tennessee about the state’s ability to enforce a law setting some standards about who is an ordained minister and who is not. If you want to catch up on press coverage of this battle, click here for my first post and then here for the podcast discussing this topic: “This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

It’s time for an update, since the status of click-that-mouse ministers with the Universal Life Church ended up in front of a federal judge yesterday. The Nashville Tennessean team produced a story for Gannett newspapers — which now dominate the volunteer state — that ran with this headline: “Judge questions 'rational basis' of state law blocking ministers ordained online from performing marriages.

The bottom line: Gannett is covering this case as a battle about LGBTQ rights, since many same-sex couples choose nontraditional ministers to perform their marriage rites. There is little or no evidence that pros at The Tennessean realize that this case will pivot on the U.S. government’s attempts — think Internal Revenue Service — to establish some guidelines to help officials determine when religious institutions exist primarily for the purpose of profit or fraud. Here’s the overture:

A federal judge on Wednesday repeatedly pressed state lawyers to explain a "rational basis" for a new Tennessee law that bans ministers ordained online from performing marriages — and he didn't seem to get an answer that satisfied him.

Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw said a lawsuit challenging the law raised "serious constitutional issues" that should be considered at trial by the end of the year. Until then, Crenshaw said, ministers ordained online could continue to perform legal marriages.

The Universal Life Church Monastery, a ministry that ordains ministers online, sued Tennessee over the law last month, saying it violated religious protections of the First Amendment among other things.

Yes, there certainly are “serious constitutional issues” at stake here. I think any serious church-state activist — left or right — would agree with that statement and with the judge’s decision that fights over this Tennessee law deserve a serious day in court.

So what are Tennessee lawmaker’s worried about? We will get to that.

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This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

Back in my Denver dedace, I turned into a solid Denver Broncos fan.

That’s normal, of course, in Colorado. Following the Broncos was like, well, a RELIGION or something.

That’s precisely what I argued in a memo to the editor in 1988, when I argued that I should be part of the Rocky Mountain News team that was sent to cover the Broncos at the Super Bowl. I made a kind of sociological argument that, if Bronco fans were not practicing a religion of some kind, then the Denver area didn’t have a religion.

I didn’t win that argument. Then, during the media-fest preceding the game, this happened (as covered by the New York Times):

Most of the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins will join Saturday in a prayer meeting that is believed to be the first to bring together National Football League players from opposing teams on the eve of any game - much less a Super Bowl.

The meeting has created a sensitive situation. Front-office executives of both clubs are reportedly against the joint meeting, which they feel could diminish the competitive fervor the teams should take into such an important game.

John Beake, the Broncos' normally expansive general manager, was abrupt when asked about it this morning. 'Can't Say Anything'

''I can't say anything about it,'' he said, and told the caller to speak to the club's news media relations director, Jim Saccomano.

Yes, the editor asked me (still back in Denver) to dive in an help with coverage of this controversy.

In a way, this subject — broadly defined — is what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week’s Crossroads podcast. (Click here to tune that in.) What is a “religion”? Who gets to decide what is a ”real” religion and what is a “fake” religion?

The news hook for this discussion was Gannett Tennessee Network coverage of a new state law that would ban wedding ceremonies being conducted by people who have been ordained through online sites that hand out ordination certificates after a few clicks of a mouse. Here’s the GetReligion post on that.

Needless to say, the lawyers linked to the Universal Life Church Monastery website are not to crazy about that and they are saying that this law violates their First Amendment-protected freedom to practice their religious convictions.

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As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

If you have read GetReligion for a while — several years at least — you know that when you see images of mountains in East Tennessee and North Carolina, that means that it’s finally vacation season at this here weblog.

Well, “VACATION” doesn’t mean that we close down. It just means that people come and go — not to be confused with Bobby Ross, Jr., heading to Texas Ranger games — so you may see business days with one or two posts instead of the usual three. But the cyber doors will never close. I’m about to leave my home office in one set of mountains (the Cumberlands) to hide away (near a WIFI cafe) for a couple of days in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But before I go, let me point readers to a very interesting church-state story developing here in the Volunteer State, a story that raises a very important question that shows up in religion news every now and then. The headline: “Internet church sues Tennessee over law banning weddings by online-ordained ministers.”

That question is: What — in legal, not theological terms — is a “church”? Here is the overture, care of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

A Seattle-based online church is suing the state of Tennessee over a new law that bars online-ordained ministers from performing weddings.

Universal Life Church Ministries filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. … The law, which states that "persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony" was to go into effect July 1. But Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw scheduled a July 3 hearing in Nashville on the restraining order requested by ULCM attorneys. …

ULCM describes itself as a "non-denominational, non-profit religious organization famous worldwide for its provision of free, legal ordinations to its vast membership over the internet." It has ordained more than 20 million people, including singer-actress Lady Gaga, talk show host Stephen Colbert and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

The bottom line is right here:

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Does deductibility really influence church giving? Salt Lake Tribune skirts the question, sort of

Does deductibility really influence church giving? Salt Lake Tribune skirts the question, sort of

The fact that Americans who itemize their income tax deductions can also deduct their donations to the church, mosque, synagogue or (recognized) religious outpost of their choice is a cherished part of American taxation, something that's not true in all nations of the world.

Now, the latest tax reform proposal knocking around Congress may -- or may not -- put a dent in such deducting. If the "standard deduction" of $5,500 for individuals and $11,000 for married couples is doubled, as proponents want, the thinking goes, more folks will skip itemizing and just go with the higher number. No itemizing means less in the collection plate, they theorize.

But here's the journalistic question: Does a mere assertion mean something's a fact? Logic would say no, but sometimes a media outlet will seem to glide around logic for a compelling story. At the least, that's how it could look to a reader.

The Salt Lake Tribune, serving a state where returning tithe is mandatory for Mormons, dives right in to the charitable deduction issue, leading with a dramatic point:

A Republican tax plan being debated on Capitol Hill maintains the deduction for charitable giving but still may have an unintended consequence that could hurt donations to churches and nonprofit groups.
The impact of the tax bill — if passed and signed into law — could mean less revenue for the LDS Church and other denominations and faith-based organizations as well as groups like the Salvation Army, Goodwill and humanitarian operations.

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Surprise! New York Times frames Johnson Amendment 'explainer' in pure Kellerism

Surprise! New York Times frames Johnson Amendment 'explainer' in pure Kellerism

It's a given, isn't it, that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It seems also a given that The New York Times will drench itself in Kellerism -- the emerging journalism doctrine that says many moral, cultural and religious issues are already decided, so there's no need for journalists to be balanced in their coverage.

The paper moved at warp speed to "explain" -- and I use that term loosely -- a promise made by President Donald J. Trump at the 65th National Prayer Breakfast on the morning of Feb. 2 in Washington, D.C. The vow was that the 1954 amendment to the tax code known as the "Johnson Amendment" would be "destroyed" during his term.

So what is this Johnson Amendment? And why is it a hot-button issue?

Never fear: The New York Times is here to Explain It All For You:

It is one of the brightest lines in the legal separation between religion and politics. Under the provision, which was made in 1954, tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate. Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Considered uncontroversial at the time, it was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican. Today, however, many Republicans want to repeal it.

Wwweeellll, sort of. The Internal Revenue Service, which monitors the activities of tax-exempt groups, including churches, specifies that the rules apply to "all section 501(c)(3) organizations" and not just churches, mosques or synagogues. In other words, the reference to "entities like churches and charitable organizations" is a bit on the vague side of things.

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An old-now-new question: Should churches and other religious non-profits be tax-exempt?

An old-now-new question: Should churches and other religious non-profits be tax-exempt?

RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

Once in a while I’ll see someone comment online about how taxing churches could help with some of the nation’s financial problems. Would taxing churches help or hurt? How do other countries handle their churches and taxes?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Governments always want more cash. However, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court warned in 1819 (in McCulloch v. Maryland) that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” so policy-makers need to weigh societal benefits churches provide, often not available otherwise (more on this below).

Those are political and economic calculations. But there’s the far more fundamental issue of fairness.

The United States has always recognized the natural and inherent right to exemption for groups that operate on a not-for-profit basis, whether schools, hospitals, and secular charities or -- treated equally -- churches (or synagogues, mosques, ashrams) and religious charities and organizations.

However, a 2016 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated that all sorts of religious exemptions should be designed “narrowly” so they do not “unduly burden non-discrimination laws and policies” for instance on gay matters. (Religious groups through history have hired employees who share their beliefs and moral tenets.) Weeks after that, a petition from Christian conservatives declared that tactics such as removal of tax exemption due to gay and transgender policies “threaten basic freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association.”

One reason for such concerns was the oral arguments prior to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

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About that Pew survey on politics and the pulpit: So what makes an issue POLITICAL?

About that Pew survey on politics and the pulpit: So what makes an issue POLITICAL?
Many Americans Hear Politics From the Pulpit

That was the takeaway from a recent national survey of thousands of churchgoers by the Pew Research Center.

This was the lede from Religion News Service:

(RNS) Most American churchgoers are hearing politics from the pulpits of their churches during this presidential election season, according to a new survey.
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (64 percent) in the survey released Monday (Aug. 8) by the Pew Research Center say their clergy have spoken about at least one political or social issue in the spring and early summer.

And from the Los Angeles Times:

At wedding receptions, barbershops and on park benches, this year's unusual presidential campaign is often an unavoidable topic of discussion.
As usual in presidential races, it's also seeping into houses of worship across the nation. 

From Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, and from abortion to immigration, many Americans are hearing politics from the pulpit, according to a survey released this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. 

But here's my question: Are Americans really hearing political issues from the pulpit?

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Here is a new federal data base reporters can mine for religion angles

Here is a new federal data base reporters can mine for religion angles

On September 12th, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled its revamped College Scorecard (click here to see it), a trove of online data to guide parents and students on where to enroll that can also be a source of religion angles. The Obama Administration wisely scrapped its controversial plan for a college rating system, something of a mission impossible, and instead compiled hard numbers that citizens can judge for themselves.

The broad economic context was analyzed that same weekend by National Public Radio’s Adam Davidson, writing in The New York Times Magazine. For example, median income adjusted for inflation has remained nearly flat since 1974 while tuition at private universities has roughly tripled, and has quadrupled at public universities. Meanwhile those pricey college degrees have increased in importance for many careers. As the new Web site proclaims, “On average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates.”

Much of this information was already available in those ubiquitous college guidebooks or the College Navigator site from the government’s National Center for Education Statistics. But the new site crunches Internal Revenue Service data to report graduates’ earnings 10 years out and how many are managing to repay student loans.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, the field’s journalistic bible, notes an important gap: Those newly added numbers cover only students who received federal loans or grants. Also, they lump together all students at an institution while earnings vary wildly depending on academic subject. The American Council on Education complains that the feds produced this setup without any review by outside experts.

No religious campuses are among the feds’ list of 23 schools commended for low cost leading to high incomes.

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Pod people: Concerning the IRS and the God squads

It’s a basic fact of life in American politics that nothing fires up the non-profit sector on the political right like the election of a strong president whose voter base is on the religious, cultural and political left.

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