Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Same-Sex Weddings v. Tax Exempt Status

Someone asked me recently, “Do you think churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to witness same-sex marriages?”

I answered, “I don’t know, but I’m convinced that the tax-exempt status will be challenged on that grounds.”

From what I understand, the Internal Revenue Code in section 501 (c) (3) has for decades exempted churches if they are “organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes” and if none of its revenues “inure to any private shareholders or individual.”

Another provision, however, was added in 1954 when Senator Lyndon B. Johnson successfully pushed for an amendment to the code which prohibited tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This Johnson Amendment means churches may not engage in political activities without risking the loss of their tax exempt status. In effect the IRS is permitted to censor a pastor’s sermon.

Loss of the tax-exempt status would mean that churches would have to pay taxes on their income, and donors could no longer declare their contributions as deductions on their tax returns. Title 26 USC #170 allows deductions for federal income tax purposes for some donors who make charitable contributions to most 501 (c) (3) organizations. That deduction could be eliminated for donors who contribute to churches refusing gay weddings.

The loss of the tax-exempt classification could challenge a church’s continued operation. Loss of tax-exemption would likely result in reduction of salaries for church staffs and church schools --any employee from music directors to youth ministers, from principals to teachers’ aides.

The tax-exempt status for churches was granted in light of the so-called “separation of church and state” concept in the First Amendment.

In 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an appeal from a property owner who wanted to prevent the New York City Tax Commission from giving tax exemption to religious organizations. In the Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York casethe court ruled that granting such exemptions “tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other.” The basic issue before the court was whether tax-exemption could be construed as the establishment of religion, thus violating the First Amendment. Some were arguing that granting tax-exempt status was in fact "establishing" religion.

The court in deciding this case acknowledged that the establishment clause of the First Amendment was not precisely drawn, that its purpose was to establish an objective not to write a statute. For this reason the court’s opinions are formulated on a case-by-case basis. The court upheld New York.

In 1819 Chief Justice John Marshall had made the observation that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy” –an argument he used in the McCulloch v. Maryland case over whether states or other forms of local government could by taxation impede the implementation of constitutional laws enacted by the Federal Congress. The court decided that states could not tax the Federal government nor impede Federal legislation.

The issue of freedom of religion and the observation that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy” may be pertinent in deciding whether the IRS could revoke tax-exempt status from churches which reject same-sex marriage.

In 1983 the U. S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Bob Jones University v. United States ruled that the Internal Revenue Service could legally revoke the tax-exempt classification of a religious university if that university’s practices were contrary to compelling public policy, which in this case was the university’s policy that single Black students could not be involved in interracial dating nor advocate interracial  marriage.

When the IRS revoked the university’s tax-exempt status, the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the court declared that that there was a common law/public interest requirement in the IRS statute granting tax-exemption and that the university’s policy violated that statute. Chief Justice Burger said that “the Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education…which substantially outweighs whatever burden of denial of tax exemption places on (Bob Jones University’s) exercise of their religious beliefs.”

The court held that “Whatever may be the rationale for such private school’s policies, racial discrimination in education is contrary to public policy. Racially discriminatory educational institutions cannot be viewed as conferring a public benefit within the above ‘charitable’ concept or within the congressional intent underlying 501 (c) (3).”

The Court did clarify that in this opinion the court had dealt only with religious schools and not with churches or purely religious institutions, but in today’s climate could a priest or diocese or the US Catholic Conference be sued for refusing to witness a same-sex marriage? Bakers and caterers have been sued for refusing service to gay couples.

Someone asked me recently, “Do you think churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to witness same-sex marriages?”

I answered, “I don’t know, but I’m convinced that tax-exempt status will be challenged on that grounds. I suspect the United States Catholic Conference already has its lawyers formulating its case. I think it only a matter of time before court proceedings will begin and likely run to the level of the U. S. Supreme Court.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Same-sex Marriage and The Wall of Separation

The United States’ tradition of separation of Church and State rests upon the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Concerned that the state constitution of Connecticut did not explicitly affirm support for religious freedom as guaranteed by the federal constitution, the Baptist Association of Danbury, in October of 1801, wrote to the recently elected President Thomas Jefferson to ask him to confirm his support for religious liberty.

It was in his reply to the Baptist Association that Jefferson used the expression “wall of separation” (a description not found in the Constitution per se). He confirmed his conviction that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.”

He went on, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

The First Amendment is generally construed as a guarantee of the people’s freedom to follow their religious preferences without governmental interference. In effect the framers were saying that religion is none of the government’s business. 

This guarantee of freedom of religion, however, has been subjected to additional analysis and interpretation. Today the wall of separation not only protects religion from State interference, but also protects the State from religious interference.

Many of those who protest legalized abortion defend the unborn’s right to life on the basis of their religious conviction that life comes from God, is sacred for that reason, and deserves protection from conception onward. But if there is a wall of separation between Church and State, then arguments based on religion are not admissible in the polity of the courts.

Many of those who oppose same-sex marriage argue that such unions are a violation of God’s intention that marriage be between one man and one woman. But if there is a wall of separation between Church and State, then arguments based on religion are not admissible in the polity of the courts.

In the current climate, appeals to religious convictions carry no weight in the determination of what is or is not legal in the judgment of many (a majority?) of our federal or state courts.

In 1965 theologian Karl Rahner, an expert and consultant for the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, predicted that the Church of the future “will be a Diaspora-Church” and its mission and message will no longer find the support of “homogenous public opinion.” His use of the term “diaspora” implies that the Church will be a stranger in a strange land, like the Jews of old often were.

Rahner recognized that the era of a Christian Europe has ended, that Europe’s culture and society no longer pre-suppose that most people will be guided by overtly Christian principles. He could have added that the same would be true in the United States, that soon most citizens (or at least their Statesmen) will no longer be guided by religion-based principles in civil government.

Even if it can be shown that many if not most of our founding fathers were not particularly religious people, there remains nonetheless that acknowledgment that their philosophy of freedom and government were shaped largely by the then prevailing standards of the established Christianity of Europe.

Even Jefferson acknowledged that the foundation for preserving freedom had to be the common recognition that freedom is of divine origin. He wrote: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” (Notes on the State of  Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, query 18).

Times have changed. As has been noted for several decades, the concept of “freedom of religion” has now led to the concept of “freedom from religion.” The amendment which precluded the establishment of religion has become a ban on the influence of religion on the legislation and judgment of civil government.

In his response to the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, decision requiring all states to license and recognize same-sex marriage, Archbishop Joseph B. Kurtz as President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops labeled the court’s judgment “a tragic error.”

The Archbishop argued the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage on two grounds: the one religious, the other natural.

The Catholic religion opposes same-sex marriage as a violation of God’s intention as found in the biblical account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2:24 (“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body”). Further, the Archbishop appeals to the New Testament, noting that “Jesus Christ, with great love, taught unambiguously that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. As Catholic bishops we follow our Lord and will continue to teach and act according to this truth.”

The Archbishop’s explanation was primarily an assurance to Catholics that the Church’s teaching about marriage remains firm, that the Court’s decision does not displace Catholic faith or practice regarding marriage. He encouraged Catholics to persevere in the Church’s effort to protect marriage as it has been understood for millennia even in the face of disagreement, hatred or persecution from their neighbors.

In addition the Archbishop appealed to nature as a criterion for rejecting same-sex marriage, noting that “The unique meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female…Mandating marriage redefinition across the country is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children. The law has a duty to support every child’s basic right to be raised, where possible, by his or her married mother and father in a stable home.”

He sees the Church’s understanding of marriage as an “unchanging truth…rooted in the immutable nature of the human person and confirmed by divine revelation.”

Arguments based on religion or religious convictions will have little or no influence in either the legislature or the courts of our land in the present climate. Opposition to same-sex marriage and protection of the traditional understanding of marriage will have to be based on nature and experience.

The Court’s Roe v Wade decision of 1973 “protecting a woman’s right to abortion” has been the law of the land for nearly 50 years. Religious arguments are not likely to overturn the court’s ruling –at least in the current climate of “freedom from religion.” But after nearly five decades of the experience, support for destroying human life under the guise of freedom of choice is eroding. Attention is turning from the rights of the mother to the rights of the child –and science has gone a long way in supporting the realization that life in the womb is human life.

Arguing against abortion on religious grounds will have little effect in our courts, but arguing for protection of life in the womb on the grounds of our American testament that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (truths which we declared to be “self-evident”), then we have a legal, natural basis for overturning the 1973 decision.

I suspect that something similar is applicable to the court’s decision about same-sex marriage. There will be a time when this “new found freedom” will be celebrated and pursued with abandon, but over time the flaws (“tragic error’) of the decision will become more and more manifest.

If same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s plan, as the Church’s magisterium holds, then the violation of that plan will produce many unwanted consequences. If our nation as a whole were to experience a conversion back to God,  religious appeals opposing same-sex marriage could be effective in repealing the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015. Until that conversion takes place opposition to the decision will have to be based on secular, constitutional and natural (experiential) argumentation.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the 5 to 4 vote, saying that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, that “the Constitution grants them that right.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion, warning that the court’s decision is a “threat to American democracy” and Justice John Roberts wrote that the decision “has nothing to do with the Constitution.”

As we now struggle to see which right is more important in the abortion controversy (the mother’s or the child’s), so we shall struggle with which right is primary in the case of same-sex marriage. In the effort to protect the rights of gay people, have we violated the rights of traditional society and family?

In the meantime we find one of the Church’s basic convictions about life, family, and God’s plan put to the test. It remains to be seen (over the long haul) how the Supreme Court's decision will play out in society.

St Augustine said, "Love God and do as you want." The Courts say, "Ignore God and do as you please".  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Laudato Si" and the Precautionary Principle

Not everyone accepts that we are experiencing “global warming” and many question (if there is global warming) whether human beings are responsible for it.

In his encyclical Laudato si  Pope Francis said, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system” and “…a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity” (cf #23).

The problem with interpreting the facts and what the pope says here focuses on his use of the restrictive term “a number of scientific studies.” Such a reference suggests there is not a consensus.

In a different area of science, for example, there are a number of scientific studies which propose the existence of gigantic halos of dark matter which hold the Bullet Cluster together, while a number of other scientific studies propose MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) as the reason for the strong curvature around the two galaxies in this cluster collision. Which thesis are we to accept?

Concern about our earthly environment is obviously more immediate and important to us than theories about the Bullet Cluster, but the question remains whether the available scientific data about global warming are sufficient to draw a reliable conclusion.

In previous writings on safeguarding the environment, the Catholic Church’s social doctrine proposed a solution when dealing with controverted opinions or theses. It suggested using the "precautionary principle." The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004, explained:

The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the “precautionary principle,” which does not mean applying rules but certain guidelines aimed at managing the situation of uncertainty (469).

The precautionary principle promotes prudent policies, comparing risks and benefits and discerning various possible alternatives. “The circumstances of uncertainty and provisional solutions,” the Compendium continues, “make it particularly important that the decision-making process be transparent” (cf 469).

While Pope Francis addresses many other issues related to protection of the environment (we  know the results of pollution of rivers, the smog of cities, the de-forestation of whole countries), it is likely that these issues will be passed over and the focus, especially in politically correct circles, will be on man-made global warming. Laudatio si is about much more, and chief among its concerns is the effect of the environment on people, especially the poor.

It may seem a stretch to suggest that we have something to learn from Native Americans and their attitude toward the environment, but respect for God’s creation is a most helpful step in preserving, protecting and promoting the environment for ourselves and future generations.

The traditions of the First Americans hold that everything the creator made has a spirit, and that all things are related and all things are sacred. Even the Bible notes the intimate relationship between human beings and the soil: “The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground” (cf Gen 2:7). Our English word “human” derives from the Latin “homo” (man), which may in turn derive from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European word meaning “earthling.” And therefore (forgive me if this seems a stretch) to be humane is to have feelings for the earth from which we were made.

Larry Zimmerman in his Native North America (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 1996) writes, “Most Native peoples respect the earth as the source of an endless cycle of generation, destruction and regeneration, through which all things are believed to pass. The view of the earth as a powerful nurturing force is expressed in the Native concept of Mother Earth…” (p 78).

Issues about water, bio-diversity, and eco-systems are not unrelated to the quality of human life and the breakdown of human society. Pope Francis has looked at these issues through the lens of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and offers his perspective. He does not speak as a scientist; he speaks as a religious leader and a prophet. He is convinced that human beings have responsibility for the proper use of the world’s resources. He asks people of good will to reflect upon the environmental problems we face, to honor creation as a sacred gift from God, and respond in a way that is motivated by responsibility and respect.

Even if we cannot agree on whether global warming is man-made, we can agree on use of the precautionary principle and continue our study and our prudent use of natural resources.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Respect Creation: Honor the Creator

The earth and its environment are among the major concerns of people around the globe in this first quarter of the 21st century. People of faith respect the world and even consider it sacred simply because they see creation as a gift from God.

That St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) respected and loved creation is clear from the stories recorded in his biographies written by Thomas of Celano (a Franciscan friar, 1200-1265) and by St Bonaventure (the Franciscan theologian and doctor of the Church, 1221-1274), and from incidents found in the so-called Legend of Perugia.

It is in this latter work, the memories of those who were close to St Francis, that we find the origin of the saint’s famous “Canticle of the Sun,” or "Praise be to you, O Lord." Even as he struggled with poor health and asked God for strength, Francis was inspired to compose a song to praise God for all his creatures.

He told his brothers, “Therefore, for his glory, for my consolation, and the edification of my neighbor, I wish to compose a new ‘Praises of the Lord’ for his creatures. These creatures minister to our needs every day; without them we could not live; and through them the human race greatly offends the Creator. Every day we fail to appreciate so great a blessing by not praising as we should the Creator and dispenser of all these gifts” (Legend of Perugia, 43).

Many stories in the biographies of the saint reflect his respect for creation, especially for animals. St Bonaventure tells of the occasion when Francis came across a huge flock of birds of various kinds, ran up to them without their flying away, and appealed to them, “My brothers, you have a great obligation to your Creator. He clothes you with feathers and gave you wings to fly, appointing the clear air as your home, and he looks after you without any effort on your part.” The birds listened, and did not leave until he blessed them with the sign of the cross. He later, it is said, “began to reproach himself for his negligence in never preaching to the birds before” (Bonaventure, Major Life, XII.3).

He freed a rabbit, rescued lambs being taken to slaughter, and even is said to have moved a worm from the walkway lest it be stepped on. Celano wrote, “He (Francis) rejoiced in all the works of the hands of the Lord and saw behind things pleasant to behold their life-giving reason and cause. In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself; all things to him were good…He forbad brothers to cut down the whole tree when they cut wood, so that it might have hope of sprouting again…He called all animals by the name brother…”  (Celano, Second Life, 165

Clearly St Francis’ concern for creation was motivated by respect and honor for the Creator. One who knew Francis recalled, “We who lived with him saw him find great cause for interior and external joy in all creatures; he caressed and contemplated them with delight, so much so that his spirit seemed to live in heaven and not on earth…he composed ‘The Praises of the Lord for His Creatures’ a short time before his demise. It was his way of inciting the hearts of those who would hear this canticle to give glory to God so that the Creator would be praised by all for all his creatures” (Legend of Perugia, 51).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mixing Science and Religion: The Big Bang God

I’ve been reading about the origin of the universe again, looking at it from the scientific point of view. I have no problem accepting science’s theory that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago with an explosion. I’m amused that the Father of the Big Bang theory is a Catholic priest, Father George LeMaitre, who believed that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity (1917) was not inconsistent with an ever-expanding universe. Einstein, however, believed that the world was a closed system, in perfect equilibrium and unchanging.

LeMaitre met Einstein at a conference on physics in October of 1927 and explained his conviction that application of  the theory of general relativity to the study of the cosmos would  in fact lead to the conclusion that the universe was dynamic, that it was moving. (A Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, in 1922 had suggested the same idea but died before following up on his theory.)  Einstein’s response to LeMaitre was something like, “Father, your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable.”

Undismayed by the senior scientist’s rejection of his theory, Lemaitre continued to look for  observable proof. About two years later LeMaitre had his proof. American astronomer Edwin Hubble published the results of data he collected by means of telescopic observations of the universe, and confirmed that most galaxies seem to be withdrawing from one another. The theory of an initial Big Bang as the origin of the universe seemed more than credible.

Years earlier Einstein had objected to physicists who proposed that the subatomic world depended not simply on determinable laws of mechanics (as those of Isaac Newton), but also on chance.  He said famously, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Einstein held out for a grand cohesive design and was dismissive of the notion that uncertainty was part of the key to exploring and understanding the world of science.

Tension between science and religion is less intense today than in past decades, but people of science and religion usually quell conflicts by happily acknowledging that science and religion are two different and separate fields in pursuit of the truth and the two should not interfere with each other. People of religion are less adamant about how God does things; chance may play a role and chance can be part of  God’s plan.

While I believe that God is ultimately responsible for creating ex nihilo (i.e., God did not use matter that pre-existed the Creator), I can accept the proposal that the Big Bang could have been the result of a new phase in a universe which had known many previous cycles of expansion and collapse.

In truth, however, my own conviction is that the Big Bang  was the explosion of God’s great love, the creative force which slowly evolved over billions of years to produce the universe as we know it today, and this explosion of love was charged with the purpose and intention of making creatures whom God would love so dearly. Yes, I’m mixing science and religion, but if both lead to truth, I have no hesitation to own the findings of both, and even allow some melding of the two into one philosophy of life.

The Bible tells who made the world; science gives me a clue about how it was made. I see no conflict between the two. The Bible is not a science book; a science book is not a book of religion. My eyes are not my ears; my ears are not my eyes, but both sets of organs help me come to knowledge.

The question that intrigues me is, “What would I know about God if I assumed the world was created by a divine being and yet science was the only way I had to draw conclusions about the creator. If I had no supernatural revelation in the form of Moses, prophets, Jesus the Christ, St. Paul and the Spirit-alive-in-the-Church what conclusions could I draw about the deity?”

Isolated from revelation, relying on science I could easily draw the conclusion that God (the creator) is complex, playful, patient, colorful, truly transcendent.

You my object that I have already brought religion into the answer by assuming there was a creator, but apart f the Bible and Church magisterium, I have to wrestle with the arguments the philosopher Thomas Aquinas offered on a natural plain for positing the existence of God. I cannot argue away the notion of an unmoved mover, or an uncaused cause. I do not need religion to come to acknowledge the existence of a creator-god. I think it a matter of common sense.

When I read that, based on supercomputer estimates, there may be 500 billion galaxies, I think how complex the creator must be.  When I read that the most distant object we know is a stellar explosion called a gamma ray burst which released as much energy as ten trillion Sun-like stars, I think how playful the creator must be.

When I read the universe has doubled in size eight times during the time it has taken for the light of the most distant celestial object to reach us, I think how patient this creator must be. When I read that scientists can deduce the chemical composition of the sun by collecting enough light to pass through a prism which then splits the light into a spectrum, I think how colorful the creator must be.

When I read this comment of Albert Einstein, “As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene…No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life,” I think how transcendent this God ours must truly be!

Thanks to revelation I can refine my understanding of God, without resolving the mystery, and feel pretty sure my assessment based on science is right.