As the Supreme Court prepares to announce its decision on same-sex marriage, religious people are wondering: will we lose our tax-exempt status for our religious institutions? Justice Samuel Alito raised this question during the oral arguments, citing the 1983 Supreme Court case that ruled Bob Jones University could lose its tax-exempt status if it continued to oppose interracial dating and marriage.
The solicitor general, arguing the case for same-sex marriage, responded that it would “depend on how states work out the balance between their civil rights laws.” This sort of reply should do nothing to calm the nerves of those who object to same-sex marriage. When the conscientious objectors become a minority of the voting population, will our rights be protected?
The issue of the tax-exempt status of religious organizations is already a hot topic in some quarters. Those in favor of taxing religious organizations point out the huge financial impact that it would have, anywhere from tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
The confiscation of church property is no new thing. There was the “Decree Confiscating Church Property,” of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s drive through Europe closing monasteries, Emperor Joseph II’s suppression and confiscation of “contemplative” institutions and many others. It seems the state is content to uphold the churches when they provide a civil service, but once they conflict with something that the state holds dear, or have large amounts of land and property, the temptation to remove the foreign element of religious resistance grows.
The folly of it all is that almost all churches in America have no source of income outside of the parishioner himself, who is already paying taxes. Most churches and their members couldn’t sustain the property taxes for more than a few months. More importantly though, removing the tax-exempt status of churches is simply adding an additional tax to churchgoers. If they can’t foot the bill, the local parish, church, or synagogue will simply have to close.
This is not fear-mongering. The local church-building—with its community services, soup-kitchen, funeral and wedding space—will become the next hot real estate item, especially those old downtown churches that can't possibly handle the huge tax increase. Real estate developers would love to get their hands on the property to replace it with another high-rise.
I don’t think losing tax-exempt status will destroy the faith of religious people. We will do what all religious groups have done throughout the centuries when the state has decided their presence is inconvenient. House churches, religious instruction in the evenings (since the religious schools will close), and a certain social separation from the rest of the culture will make a comeback. But the faith will persevere.
The next time you go to your local place of worship, say a prayer that we can have the freedom to worship, learn, and serve in public places.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern atFirst Things.