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What happened to churches that refused to hold interracial weddings?
March 25, 2013 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Around the time that the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia, did any churches lose their tax exempt status either due to (A) political activities related to the fight over interracial marriage or (B) due to the refusal to conduct such marriages for its members?

On the news this morning, I heard a pastor of a conservative church say
Who knows if the gay rights[sic] get their way, that if some gay couple wants to get married in my church, I say no, they'll say, well, you got to, or we'll take away your tax rights[sic], or you'll have to start paying property taxes, because that's discrimination. Who knows what they'll do?
This made me wonder what happened to churches that were on the wrong side in interracial marriage.

Bonus question: What exactly is the lawsuit against the Word of Life Church in El Paso, TX? The story alludes to a lawsuit against the church that might affect its tax-exempt status, but it doesn't actually say what the lawsuit is:
[H]e's now facing a lawsuit that his church engaged in political activities, which would jeopardize its tax-exempt status.
posted by jepler to Law & Government (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
The missing piece of the logic is that churches aren't required to marry anyone. In states where only heterosexual marriage is legal, churches can choose not to marry any straight couple they wish (as my pastor has done in the past when he feels the couple is not ready for marriage) and not lose their tax exemption.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:36 AM on March 25, 2013 [16 favorites]


Forcing a church to perform a marriage (or any other kind of religious activity) would violate the First Amendment. The courts have tended to interpret that protection extremely broadly.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:40 AM on March 25, 2013


Churches are not allowed to engage in overtly political activities, if they do the IRS can revoke their tax exempt status. They almost never do this. If I recall correctly, they're allowed to talk about issues all they want, but not to tell their members to vote for Joe, or Party X or whatever.

As for interracial marriage, the Loving case made it so that the government could not restrict interracial marriage. Because of State Actor doctrine, this did not affect freedom of churches to refuse to marry whomever they want. Many churches refuse to marry couples for various reasons (cohabitating before marriage, previously divorced, spouses of different religions, etc.). I'm not aware of any religions which currently forbid interracial couples, but I'd be surprised if there weren't a few out there. Under current law they'd have no problem refusing to marry someone on those grounds.

So why do religious right types constantly bring up this idea that they're going to be forced at gunpoint to marry devil-worshipping homosexuals? Some blend of ignorance of the law and malice, I suppose.
posted by skewed at 11:40 AM on March 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


There was recently a bit of publicity about a church (in the South, imagine) that still wouldn't marry a couple once they found out that they were interracial.

There were no legal consequences to the church, though I hope they lost a few parishioners.
posted by musofire at 11:49 AM on March 25, 2013


Loving merely struck-down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Churches remained free to marry whomever they please. Or not marry whomever they pleased.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:52 AM on March 25, 2013


Churches cannot campaign for or against a candidate for public office. So you cannot say, from the pulpit, "Joe Shoetree is the right candidate for the Flying Spaghetti Monster community." You can say whatever you want about *issues*, and obviously that can basically amount to tacit endorsement of one candidate over another, but as far as I know, most of the cases where churches have lost or nearly lost their tax-exempt status have been pretty clear-cut.

I'm sure that there are still churches that won't marry interracial couples (certainly there are plenty that won't marry interreligious couples, who shouldn't be discriminated against under the law).

If churches were going to lose their tax-exempt status over not recognizing gay marriage, the Catholic Church would be in even worse shape in Massachusetts than it already is.
posted by mskyle at 11:56 AM on March 25, 2013


What will happen to churches that refuse to marry people who do not meet that church's standards or requirements for marriage? The same thing that happens to, e.g., Catholic churches that refuse to marry non-Catholics, or Mormon churches that refuse to marry non-Mormons.

A church is not like, say, a diner, which due to being a public accommodation is subject to the civil rights laws. The Constitution protects the rights of churches to freely exercise their religion as they see fit, within some entirely reasonable (to me) boundaries (e.g., you can worship the murder god however you like, but you can't murder people as part of that worship.) The Federal Government, and the State Governments, are specifically prohibited from telling a religion how to do what it does.

Gay marriage will not change that.
posted by gauche at 11:58 AM on March 25, 2013


musonfire, you may be referring to this Kentucky church that refuses, or at least did so in 2011, to marry interracial couples, or even admit them as members. So it still occurs, and they're not facing any legal consequences.
posted by skewed at 11:59 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


, or even admit them as members. So it still occurs, and they're not facing any legal consequences.

They did change their bylaws to admit people in an interracial marriage as members, although accounts differ as to why they re-voted (some articles say that the original vote did not have quorum, others say that they were advised that their bylaws could not violate state or federal laws).
posted by muddgirl at 12:03 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Earlier in the broadcast, they said the lawsuit was because the church ran a recall petition against the mayor and city council members (because they reinstated the gay partner benefits stuff).
posted by inkyz at 12:05 PM on March 25, 2013


Not precisely on point, but the IRS did challenge the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its ban on interracial dating. In Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983), the Supreme Court affirmed the IRS' action.

The Court was careful to note, however, that it was only deciding the issue as it related to "religious schools — not ... churches or other purely religious institutions[.]" Id. at 604 n.29.
posted by ewiar at 12:22 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everybody's saying about what I expected: It's a canard that churches would be forced to perform marriages (or else lose e.g., 501(c)(3) status and the tax benefits that come from it), and that it's rare for a church to lose its status over political activity. If nobody chimes in with specific examples to the contrary (ewiar, that comes awfully close to what I am looking for, thanks!), I'll come back and give some early respondents "best answer" marks.

As for losing 501(c)(3) status in the present day, I found a paper from 2008 which says:
In the past two election cycles the I.R.S. has fielded over 200 complaints, half of which led to investigations of organizations’ activities.7 Only a handful have resulted in an organization losing its tax-exempt status under § 501(c)(3).8
(pdf; citations from original) Since 501(c)(3) includes more than just religious organizations. In fact, going back to citation 8 via the wayback machine we find that the '04 election cycle led to IRS investigations of 132 charities and churches:
In three cases — involving charities but not churches — the prohibited activity was egregious enough to warrant the IRS proposing the revocation of the organizations’ tax-exempt status.”
(emphasis mine), so it's unclear whether in the present era any churches are losing tax perks for their anti-gay rhetoric.
posted by jepler at 12:27 PM on March 25, 2013


Churches may absolutely engage in political activity. My church agitated strongly for marriage equality and against the Iraq War, for example. What they CAN'T do is endorse a candidate or a party. So we are free to say "We believe that all citizens of the United States should be able to marry the person they love, regardless of gender; we believe in equal pay for equal work, and protection from discrimination in all arenas; we believe that the dignity of all people must be affirmed regardless of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation; and we believe that all citizens deserve affordable, comprehensive health care, including reproductive care," but we cannot finish that sentence with ". . . and that's why you should vote for Barack Obama for President of the United States."
posted by KathrynT at 12:29 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Religion is a protected class under the Civil Rights Act, but to the best of my knowledge, Catholic priests who refuse to perform marriage ceremonies for non-Christians have never been subject to prosecution.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:29 PM on March 25, 2013


, you got to, or we'll take away your tax rights[sic], or you'll have to start paying property taxes, because that's discrimination

The speaker here is conflating two issues (intentionally, I suspect). They point to situations where religious entities are engaging in either commercial interests or employment. So, the church cannot be forced to marry anyone, but if that church rents out a reception hall publically, they cannot discriminate in that rental. A church can "discriminate" in choosing their new pastor, but not in choosing their new janitor.
posted by spaltavian at 1:14 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


it's unclear whether in the present era any churches are losing tax perks for their anti-gay rhetoric.

Actually, no, it isn't. None of them are.

Religion is a protected class under the Civil Rights Act, but to the best of my knowledge

Whether or not that true is irrelevant, because religion is a protected class under the First Amendment. The government cannot interfere with the free exercise of religion, and refusing to grant tax-exempt status on the basis of a group's religious beliefs would be just that.

Remember, the First Amendment has two religious provisions: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. True, the government can't get overly entangled in religion. But anything the government does that interferes with the expression or practice of religious beliefs is presumptively invalid and subject to intense scrutiny by the courts. Not everything that burdens religion is actually invalid, but the government either needs to show a really, really compelling justification, or a minimal burden on religious beliefs connected to a neutral, generally-applicable regulation.

In the BJU case, the government could show both. BJU got in trouble not simply because it took a position contrary to prevailing public opinion, like groups that oppose gay marriage do. Race is a kind of "extra protected class," and governmental efforts to prohibit racial discrimination are afforded maximal deference. Race is actually enshrined in the Constitution, namely the Thirteenth Amendment. But religion is too, when it comes down to it, and discrimination on that basis will receive almost as intense scrutiny as discrimination on the basis of race. Sexual orientation is not afforded any of these protections. Indeed, at the moment it isn't a protected class at all, so discrimination on that basis is actually legal.

Regardless, people who ask why religious organizations that take unpopular positions are permitted to keep their tax exempt status almost uniformly overlook the existence and effect of the Free Exercise Clause. If a church would qualify for tax exempt status except for said unpopular position, then denying it tax exempt status on that basis would constitute discrimination on the basis of religion in violation of the First Amendment.
posted by valkyryn at 1:48 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


A church can "discriminate" in choosing their new pastor, but not in choosing their new janitor.

Actually, they can discriminate for the janitor, too.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:51 PM on March 25, 2013


The missing piece of the logic is that churches aren't required to marry anyone.

Yes, exactly. The law in the US can't force churches to do (pretty much) anything in the line of their religious work. Can't force them to marry anyone, admit anyone, give charity to anyone, etc.

Those privileges are severely curtailed when the church is acting as an employer. But that's labor law stuff, not tax exempt stuff. There are loopholes for some things as mentioned abopve, but their autonomy to act religiously in the role of employer is very restricted. (Like the birth control thing from last year.) Lots of churches are small enough that quite a few of the seemingly ubiquitous labor laws don't apply to them anyway, however.

Tax exempt status is a whole other thing, and there is nothing special about churches that requires them to be "churchly" to be tax exempt. All they have to do is follow the rules for 501(c)3 organizations.

What many organizations do is have two corporations going. The "Prairieland Church Foundation" that runs the church, and the "Prairieland Church, Inc." that runs the overt political activities as a 501(c)4. They still don't have to pay taxes, but donations to that half of the organization aren't tax deductible for the donors.

So what a church could (I think) perfectly legally do is hold an ice cream social in the church basement, sponsored by the 501(c)4 which pays nominal rent to the church to lease the space for that time, and then they can advocate for whatever they want. Within the confines of the 501(c)4 rules, of course.
posted by gjc at 5:39 PM on March 25, 2013


Those privileges are severely curtailed when the church is acting as an employer.

Well limited, sure, but I wouldn't say "severely". They're largely exempt from anti-discrimination laws, and from significant parts of the ADA. Their employees pay taxes, sure, but that seems a de minimis intrusion.

posted by valkyryn at 6:22 PM on March 25, 2013


Churches are not allowed to engage in overtly political activities, if they do the IRS can revoke their tax exempt status.

More accurately, 501(c) non-profits cannot participate or otherwise take part in campaigns for public offices. The provision is known as the Johnson Amendment because it was introduced by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson to help him and a few other Texas Democrats win re-election. His two prime targets were Hunt's Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government. So, this rule comes not from some constitutional principle of church/state separation but Texas politics. In my opinion, it is a violation of the Free Speech clause.

Of course, 501(c) organization engage in public elections with impunity. Somehow no one seems to kick up much fuss over the secular ones.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:17 PM on March 26, 2013


The Johnson Amendment (thanks for that, Tanizaki) talks about candidates. What about ballot issues other than elected offices? Can a 501(c)(3) organization promote a particular vote on a bond issue, for instance? If not, is the reason the Johnson Amendment or something else?
posted by jepler at 1:09 PM on March 27, 2013


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