Monday, April 18, 2011

Churches vs. Other Nonprofits (Again)

Scott Wells offers useful observations on churches and political endorsements.

But I still haven't found an answer to a question I had the last time this subject came up:

Why are churches treated differently from other nonprofits? This isn't simply a pitch to tax the churches (which I have suggested before). Instead,it's about why churches as nonprofits are classified separately from secular nonprofits.

Scott says the First Amendment is the reason, but (perhaps because I'm not a lawyer) I don't follow that.

Both, say, the East Bainbridge United Way and the First Baptist Church face IRS restrictions in how they can comment on politics (specifically, neither can endorse political candidates). Neither organization pays taxes.

Yet there's a whole special category of "church" for First Baptist Church. One side effect: Organizations that function as a church but are for some reason not structured in the way the IRS thinks a church should be end up being held up for special scrutiny.

It seems to me that to treat the First Baptist Church differently than the East Bainbridge United Way (or any other nonprofit) at best skirts the Establishment Clause: it privileges an organization simply because it is a "church". On the other side, it also forces that organization to justify itself as a church. Talk about government entanglement with religion!

So can someone explain the justification for this difference? I'd really like to know -- and I didn't want to hijack Scott's thread in the process.


  1. I have more questions than answers, the first question being, *Are* churches treated differently than other nonprofits? I thought that for tax purposes, and for political purposes, the United Way and the Baptist Church are exactly the same. They do not pay (certain kinds of) taxes. They cannot take (certain kinds of) political action. This keeps them from being front organizations for political action committees.

    There's the stuff about clergy taxes, which I thought had its historical roots in the frequent practice of providing clergy with housing in lieu of a full salary. Why that distinguishes a church with a parsonage from, say, a military base, I have no clue.

  2. They are treated differently, because churches have to (sometimes) specifically defend their status as churches. And there are specific definitions that the IRS has put forth about what is and isn't a church. (See the item linked to the phrase 'thinks a church should be'...)

  3. You may be interested in seeing this criticism of the watchdog group that is supposed to monitor religious non-profits on the "Friendly Atheist" blog:

    Instead of having a diverse group that might improve accountability, the entire watchdog group is made up of Evangelical Christians and many of them currently benefit from the current tax laws regarding religion.

    Metaphorically, it appears that the foxes are guarding the henhouse.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Steve. Yes indeed, on the foxes/henhouse metaphor.

    And I will just note that our shared question remains unanswered...


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