The Parade of Privilege

We’re now enduring the “Fortnight for Freedom,” the Catholic bishops’ 14-day whine festival to “restore religious liberty.” What a joke! Religion in America today not only has all the “liberty” one could imagine, but enjoys an extraordinary array of special privileges. So as a brief counterpoint of sanity amidst the sanctimony, I offer the “Parade of Privilege”: a listing of 14 of the many ways that government props up religion, favoring God experts over the one third of Americans who are not religious. When you reach the end of the Parade, ask yourself this: how much higher would that one-third be if government provided a truly level playing field?

Privilege No. 1: Property Tax

Let’s start with money, always a favorite subject. Big money – billions with a “B” type money. Twenty-six billion dollars a year – every year. That’s the conservative estimate of authors Ryan Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega for the loss to state and local governments from the property tax exemption for churches.

President Obama is certainly correct when he points out that private sector employment is growing, albeit slowly, but that overall economic growth is being creamed by the sharp decline in public sector jobs. What if there were a program that guaranteed $26 billion a year, every year, to our state and local governments to get their budgets back on track? Without costing the federal government or the average taxpayer a nickel? There is: just repeal the property tax exemption for churches.

“But,” the bishops would say, “churches do a great deal of good.” Well, some do, and some don’t. Just like plenty of other organizations that do good in their communities as well. Take grocery stores – there are lots of communities, urban and rural, that are seriously underserved by grocery stores, causing major hardship on a daily basis. A property tax exemption for grocery stores could solve that problem, lickety-split. As any legislator can tell you, though, if you do that for grocery stores, then the hardware stores, the shoe stores, and the drug stores will form a line outside the door, demanding the same treatment. They all do good things for their communities, and are a lot more essential to living a pleasant life than any church will ever be.

Privilege No. 2: Crime and Punishment

Should people who claim to have a particular set of beliefs about supernatural spirits in the sky be subject to the same criminal laws that you and I have to obey? Of course they should. Why is this even a question?

It’s a question because the law doesn’t work that way. Take drug laws, for example. If you or I get caught with a hallucinogenic drug on the controlled substances list, we’ll go to jail. Unless we persuade the court that drug use is part of our religion, which puts us neatly above the law. That’s what the Supreme Court said in 2006, about a group claiming to be a South American Indian religion that gets high on a tea containing dimethyltryptamine, which the United States has promised by treaty to ban. Ban it we do – for the one third of Americans who are not religious. God experts, though, get a free pass. In 2008, the Italian Supreme Court took this idea one step further, allowing Rastafarians (who regard marijuana as a sacred substance) to possess larger than otherwise permissible quantities of weed.

How about cruelty to animals? A despicable crime, anywhere you go – unless you’re a God expert, in which case murdering animals for sacrifice to appease the spirits is a perfectly legal thing to do. Thus saith our Supreme Court, soon followed by a circuit court in Texas.

Privilege No. 3: Indulging Scofflaws

“In the face of an unjust law,” the bishops wrote when first announcing the current Fortnight for Freedom campaign, “an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them.”

Religiously motivated defiance of the law is already here – and the government isn’t lifting a finger to stop it.

The tax code for the last half century has wisely limited the income tax exemption for churches to ones that refrain from endorsing or opposing political candidates or parties from the pulpit.

Hundreds of professional God experts (in fairness to the bishops, most of them Protestant) have decided they are above this law, and aren’t going to obey it anymore. They are deliberately and brazenly endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and daring the IRS to do something about it. The IRS response, in the current administration, is to turn tail and run. Enforcement of this rule has been completely shut down.

If you or I were to defy the IRS and not pay all or part of our taxes, say because we had a moral objection to government funding of churches through the “Faith-Based Initiative,” IRS would start seizing our assets in a heartbeat. The difference is, you and I are part of the one third of Americans who are not religious. God experts get to obey the laws they like, and skip the ones they don’t.

Privilege No. 4: Zoning

Land use laws can be a pain. Most of us have at least a little stubborn streak of “I paid for my property, I can do with it what I want.” But real-world experience with uncontrolled sprawl has led the vast majority of Americans to acquiesce in the need for sensible zoning and historic preservation laws, that everyone has to comply with.

Everyone, that is, except God experts. Thanks to a travesty of a federal law called the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” (RLUIPA), governments at every level now have to bend over backwards to change their zoning rules to accommodate anyone who claims to be acting for God.

Most of the effects of RLUIPA never even show up in the press. One that did occurred in Salem, Virginia, in 2010. The town government spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars improving a parcel of land just off Interstate 81, putting in roads, parking, and utilities to create an industrial park to attract business to generate jobs for the community. “If you build it, they’ll come.” Pastor Tom McCracken watched all this work patiently, and when it was finished he applied for a change in the zoning so that he could move his “CommUNITY Church” there. No way, said the town; the point of spending the taxpayers’ money was to attract jobs, not to build a church, which among other things would be unconstitutional. McCracken and his clever lawyers, though, relied on a blatantly discriminatory RLUIPA to bully the town into changing the zoning so his church could move in – a slick end run around the federal constitution. Like most controversies under RLUIPA, this one never made it to court; when the town discovered that it would have to pay both sides’ attorney fees if it lost the case, but Pastor McCracken would not have to do likewise, it caved in without a fight.

Privilege No. 5: Government PR

The most astonishing conundrum about the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign is how anyone could imagine that a government so bent on promoting religious belief could be accused of persecuting people for it.

We have a government that in 1954 changed the longstanding Pledge of Allegiance every school child must recite, to insert an “under God” proviso that marginalizes millions of non-religious Americans. This persecutes religion?

We have a government that in 1956 changed a marvelous motto, “Out of many, one,” to another promo spot for religion, “In God We Trust.” (Since we started stamping this on all our currency, its value has declined by about 90%. Perhaps it would be better to trust in sound monetary policy?)

We have a government that allows crucifixes to dot public parks across the land, and spends millions of taxpayer dollars fighting tooth and nail whenever anyone suggests replacing them with symbols that would appeal to all Americans, not just the 60% or so who are active Christians.

We have a recent President (the first Bush, the “kinder, gentler one”) who said that “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” We now have a presumed presidential nominee who insists that “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.” He’s running against an opponent who proclaims in an official speech that religious faith is “fundamental to human progress.” So those of us who are not religious are against freedom, against human progress, and ought to just take a hike. Except on April 15, when we are regarded as 100% true-blue, red-blooded, and green-moneyed Americans.

Privilege No. 6: Brainwashing

The only way religion can survive is by constant brainwashing of impressionable young minds. It’s a rare bird indeed who is raised without religious indoctrination, then after reaching the age of reason looks at the evidence, slaps his forehead and says “Of course! A Trinity! It must be so.”

America’s bishops fought a bitter battle for decades against secular education, sternly admonishing the faithful that it was the gravest of mortal sins to send their children to public schools when a parochial school was available. They lost, in large part because sending a child to a public school is free, while sending a child to a parochial school is not.

Now God experts are taking a different tack, by getting taxpayers (religious and nonreligious alike) to foot the bill for sending children to religious schools. In places like Arizona, a “tuition tax credit” is now in place, allowing any taxpayer to choose to redirect $500 of his or her state tax payment to a private religious school instead. As you might imagine, Christian fundraisers are all over this one. “With Arizona’s scholarship tax credit, you can send children to our community’s [religious] day schools and it won’t cost you a dime!” exclaims one outfit. Another urges potential donors to “imagine giving with someone else’s money. … Stop imagining, thanks to Arizona’s tax laws, you can!” Since 1998, Arizonans have “given” away nearly $350 million of someone else’s money. In Ohio, 96% of the students benefiting from a taxpayer-funded voucher program wind up in religious schools. Similar programs are surging forward in Missouri, Virginia, and Florida.

At many of these taxpayer-funded schools, students are taught as scientific fact that God created the world in seven days, six thousand years ago. Even in public schools, many teachers and administrators are so cowed by militant Christians that the subject of man’s origin is simply ignored as being too controversial. In other places, like Louisiana, religiously-inspired legislation promotes the teaching of alternatives to scientifically demonstrated evolution, under the guise of critical thinking. Students at Louisiana Christian schools next fall will be taught that the existence of the Loch Ness monster helps prove that the theory of evolution is false.

Privilege No. 7: Prisons

The most ludicrous examples of government special privilege for religion can be found in our prisons, which are supposed to be places where ordinary freedoms are left at the door. Thanks to the efforts of Watergate jailbird Charles Colson, the same RLUIPA law that gives churches an unfair advantage in routine zoning matters also gives prisoners incredible power to ignore ordinary prison rules, just by claiming that God (or even the devil) said so.

Senators as diverse as Harry Reid and Strom Thurmond expressed misgivings about the change. Thurmond, not ordinarily considered a humanist hero, sagely warned that “Inmates have used religion as a cover to organize prison uprisings, get drugs into prison, promote gang activity, and interfere in important prison health regulations. Additional legal protections will make it much harder for corrections officials to control these abuses of religious rights.” But, they voted for it anyway, because they didn’t want to offend the God experts.

Thurmond was right on the mark. Attorney Marci Hamilton points out in her book God vs. the Gavel that running a prison is a tough job, and it is critical for the inmates to perceive that the rules governing their conduct are simple and evenly applied. She then goes on to list, page after page, the types of special treatment under RLUIPA demanded and often received by prisoners, always with the threat of a costly federal court battle looming in the background:

  • Catholics demanding fish and unleavened bread during Lent, and wine every Sunday
  • Rastafarians demanding a diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, juices, and grains
  • Sikhs demanding unlimited hair and beard length
  • Protestants demanding to wear metal crosses, easily useable as weapons
  • Buddhists demanding tallow-free soap and hair conditioner
  • “Technicians of the Sacred” demanding worship in the nude
  • Aryan Nation demanding Aryan Nation sacred racist texts
  • Odinists demanding a sauna, cauldron, and Viking swords made of soft wood
  • Wiccans demanding Tarot cards and the right to cast spells and curses
  • Muslims demanding the right to refuse to be tested for tuberculosis
  • Baptists demanding better television programs
  • Christian Separatists demanding the right to be separated from black inmates
  • Luciferians demanding the right to burn Bibles (which wound up causing smoke damage throughout the building)

Privilege No. 8: Legal Discrimination

One of the main drivers behind the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign is the church’s visceral opposition to same-sex marriage. How does broadening freedom for a minority take away from the religious or other liberty of anyone else? For the simple reason, says the church, that “religious liberty” requires the freedom to discriminate in myriad ways against those in lawful marriages of which the church disapproves. A freedom which it already has, even in the handful of states like New York that have legalized same-sex marriage.

For example, will the Knights of Columbus be required to open its halls for same-sex weddings? Will Catholic adoption agencies be allowed to refuse to place children with same-sex married couples? Can a Muslim motel owner refuse to rent rooms to a same-sex married couple? The compromise reached in the New York law unambiguously exempts religious organizations, even tangentially-related ones like the Knights of Columbus, from having to give ordinary civil rights to same-sex spouses. Of course, that’s not enough for the bishops, who want to extend the freedom to discriminate (euphemistically called “conscience protection”) to individuals like the Muslim motel owner.

When you think about the civil rights of same-sex spouses, try doing so in terms of another type of marriage that until recent times was railed against by Christianity: miscegenation, or mixed-race marriage. The Catholic Church actually had a good record on this, but most Protestant churches did not. As Richmond’s Christian Herald put it, “God has made the two races widely different not only in complexion, but in their instincts and social qualities. We take it for granted it was not the purpose of the Creator that they should be blended. Nature abhors the union.” Former President Harry Truman was blunter, telling a reporter that mixed-race marriage “ran counter to the teachings of the Bible,” while Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell warned that miscegenation would “destroy our [white] race eventually.”

So should it be ok for churches or church-related organizations to refuse to serve mixed-race couples, if that’s what their religion commands? If not, then why should churches or church-related organizations be allowed to refuse to serve same-sex couples, whose marriages are just as valid?

Privilege No. 9: Tax-free housing

Here’s a brilliant tax planning idea for you, free of charge. Go to your employer and work out this deal: rather than giving you your whole paycheck, just hold part of it back, and send it directly to your landlord or mortgage holder instead, to cover your monthly payment. Then you only have to pay tax on the part you actually receive, saving you thousands of dollars a year.

Brilliant, except that IRS already thought of that one, many decades ago. And quite rightly said no, if an employer provides you a non-cash benefit like a house, or pays your bills for you, that’s taxable income just like straight cash is.

Unless, of course, you’re a God expert. In which case you benefit from something called the “parsonage exemption,” allowing you to get away with a tax scam as simple as this one.

This is in the Bible, you know. It’s the Eleventh Commandment: “Rules are for schmucks; God experts do what they want.”

Privilege No. 10: ERISA

One of the most important federal laws protecting average working people is ERISA, the law governing pensions and other types of deferred compensation arrangements. It’s a law that says if employers promise you money when you retire 20 years from now, they have to back up that promise with real funding, now. It’s a law that prevents employers from slipping in hidden “gotchas” to take away pension rights employees think they are earning, and that prevents employers from fooling around with money set aside for employee pensions for their own benefit.

It’s a law that’s very expensive for employers to comply with. So naturally, America’s God experts came whimpering to Congress, saying “This is very expensive for us to comply with for our hundreds of thousands of employees. We need a special privilege, so that we can have our ‘religious liberty.’ And if you don’t give it to us, we’ll tell everyone how much you hate God.”

They got it.

Privilege No. 11: Social Security

Everyone has to pay into Social Security, right? Um, no, they don’t. The Amish, who know much more about God than the rest of us do, believe that there is a religiously based obligation to provide for their fellow members the kind of assistance contemplated by the social security system. Both payment and receipt of social security benefits is forbidden by the Amish faith.

So they went all the way to Supreme Court, demanding the “religious liberty” to get out of paying the same Social Security and Medicare taxes that you and I do. The court, in a burst of common sense, said no – free exercise of religion means you can believe and worship as you please, but you have to obey the same religiously-neutral laws as everyone else.

A great day for America. Until the Amish went to Congress, and got exactly the special privilege they were after. A privilege, by the way, that now even carries over to Obamacare, which applies to you and me, but not to them.

Privilege No 12: Circumcision

Mutilating infants is a bad thing, don’t you think? Especially in ways from which their bodies will never be able to recover? Especially when the purpose of the mutilation, according to great God expert thinkers, is to reduce their capacity for sexual pleasure later in life?

Virtually every medical organization that has studied circumcision has concluded that its medical benefits are nil. The only reason it is allowed is because Jews and Muslims have a hotline to God, who tells them to keep on cutting.

The great PR scam here is the steady stream of headlines about proposals for a “circumcision ban.” There has never been such a proposal, and will never be one. Any adult who wants to be circumcised has that absolute right. When it comes to grown-ups making life-altering decisions for infants, though, it’s time for a more even-handed application of the law.

Privilege No. 13: Daycare

Millions of American children spend time in daycare centers. Every state regulates these operations carefully, because children are so wonderfully creative in finding ways to injure or kill themselves. There are rules about sanitation; rules about staff training; rules about storage of medicine; rules about quality of equipment; rules about background checks to keep out known child molesters.

All these rules cost money to comply with, money that the daycare center owner will not be able to retain as profit. So if a daycare center is operated by a religious organization, then it becomes a terrible assault on religious liberty to make it comply with these rules. Around a dozen states, therefore, liberate religiously-affiliated daycare centers from all or part of these God-threatening rules.

Then, of course, the free market does its thing, and drives more children away from higher-cost secular daycare toward lower-cost, lower-safety religious daycare. What a country!

Privilege No. 14: The War on Contraception

The biggest impetus behind the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” is their opposition to the requirement that health insurers include contraceptive coverage as a standard part of their packages, thus indirectly resulting in those who oppose contraception helping to pay the bill for those who choose to use it.

The bishops’ crocodile tears over “freedom of conscience” with regard to contraception are a canard. History shows that whenever the church has had the political power to do so, it has gotten governments to legally ban the use of contraceptives, for everyone, individual conscience be damned. This happened in many American states prior to the Griswold case in 1965, and in countries like Ireland and Spain deep into the 1970s. Only now that the church is on the back foot does it start whimpering about “freedom of conscience.”

I help pay for a lot of things I don’t approve of. Ethanol subsidies. The war in Afghanistan. An embassy in the Vatican. Weapons for Israel. Your list is probably different, but I’m sure there are a lot of things you help pay for that you don’t approve of, either. Neither of us like it, but we know we’re part of a bigger group, and it’s not possible to make everybody in the group happy all the time. So we don’t demand special treatment, or an individual reduction in our tax payments for programs we oppose, because we know government couldn’t function if everyone paid only for the things they like.

No one is requiring any Catholic to use contraceptives. The church has every right to argue that contraception is immoral and to urge people to repudiate it in their own personal lives. No one is trying to suppress the church’s right to make its case. But when the church demands and receives special privileges – one law for the church, and a different law for everyone else – that’s another matter.

The furor over the church-related organization mandate obscures the real scandal here, which is that churches themselves, along with other employers whose primary purpose is to espouse religious doctrine, are already exempt from the requirement to provide their employees with healthcare coverage that includes contraception. This affects tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom have no moral objection to the practice.

One of the biggest arguments the bishops are making is that it’s wrong for government to be drawing that kind of fuzzy line, to provide one set of health insurance rules for a church-sponsored seminary and a different set of rules for a church-sponsored medical school. They’re absolutely right: there ought to be one set of simple rules for everyone to follow. And if the democratic process results in contraception or any other form of medical treatment being part of those rules, then it’s the civic duty of the church to make the same payments everyone else has to make, and the civic right of the church to proclaim its view on the morality of actual use of the various treatments being offered.

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That’s today’s list of 14 privileges, one for each day of the “Fortnight for Freedom.” In 2006 the New York Times did an analysis of laws passed since 1989 by Congress alone (not the states), finding more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents tucked into Congressional legislation.

Someone might want to tell the bishops that pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.

One Response to “The Parade of Privilege”

  1. Marty says:

    some of the tax exemptions wouldn’t bother me- if all of us were exempt. I feel we pay too much in taxes as it is… and I think the amount of tax revenue the govt would receive if they charged property taxes would be drastically reduced, because a lot of churches would go under. I still think they should charge the tax. I like the voucher programs, but I think they should be allowed for homeschooling, too. It’s hard to find secular homeschooling, but it’s becoming more common. Public schools will never improve until they’re forced to compete with other schools.

    THANKS for a good discussion!

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