Non-Profit Groups

Your weekend think piece: Is it time to allow governments to define 'real' religion?

Your weekend think piece: Is it time to allow governments to define 'real' religion?

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?

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Oh, those religious fund-raisers

(Paraphrasing) She attended a fund-raising event for an unnamed organization where a slide show began by saying that “on the eighth day God created” this group and then presented its purposes. She found that “arrogant and self-serving” and it “bothered me beyond belief. Am I being overly sensitive?” Still, religious offenses are in the eye of the beholder and fund-raising is well worth some examination. The late Henri Nouwen observed in A Spirituality of Fundraising (Upper Room Books) that work for financial support should be seen as a “ministry” of the kingdom, not “a necessary but unpleasant activity.”

Since this question is posed to “Religion Q and A” we can assume the organization is religious. Though The Guy wasn’t present, sounds like the leaders of this group were simply saying God created the cosmos in six days and rested on the seventh, while from day eight forward to the present divinely aligned activities depend upon our human efforts.

Understood correctly, that’s no heresy, and seems to The Guy he’s heard a sermon or three saying precisely that. This agency presumably believes it is working to carry forward God’s purposes in the world, which almost any church or religious charity might think or say about itself.

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Does help for communities justify churches’ tax exemption?

(Paraphrased) Secularists challenge tax exemptions for houses of worship, saying this denies valuable revenue to communities that get little or nothing in return. True?

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Taking a legal walk in a church's non-religious woods

For decades, I have been covering stories involving clashes between religious organizations and state and county tax officials. The key plot elements in these legal dramas usually include:

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