Why Do They Get to Decide? April 20, 2011

Why Do They Get to Decide?

Senator Chuck Grassley has formed a “Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations” to keep a watchful eye “on the financial practices of high-profile religious organizations.”

After releasing the findings of his three-year inquiry of six media-based Christian ministries, the senator asked [Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability] to spearhead an independent national effort to review and provide input on major accountability and policy issues affecting such organizations.

Fantastic! We need a group like that — An independent watchdog that will help prevent further tax abuses. Excellent.

It’s a given that we can trust the 14 people on the committee to be impartial, right…?

*Sigh* No. Not at all. The Secular Coalition for America explains the problem:

… a commission formed at the request of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to “spearhead an independent national effort” to investigate issues related to tax loopholes for religious organizations is composed exclusively of evangelical Christians — several of whom are directly benefitting from current tax inequalities in our system.

What the hell…?

If you want to make sure high-profile Christians aren’t doing anything shady, you don’t put that solely in the hands of other Christians. Where are the Muslims? Jews? Non-profit leaders who know something about tax law? Get a few atheists on that committee and you can bet real action will be taken.

Let’s take a look at the problems the Gang O’ Christians will be working on:

Issues the commission will address include whether churches should file the same highly detailed annual information return that other nonprofits must file (Form 990); whether legislation is needed to curb abuses of the clergy housing allowance exclusion; whether the current prohibition against political campaign intervention by churches and other nonprofits should be repealed or modified; and whether legislation is needed to clarify tax rules covering “love offerings” received by some clergy.

Anyone want to make some predictions…?

You can’t leave a decision like this in the hands of those who have a vested interested in the status quo.

Change is either minimal or non-existent.

(Cartoon via nakedpastor)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mary

    Let me guess… no they shouldn’t have to file tax returns, yes the ruling should be repealed so they can openly tell their sheep who to vote for under penalty of burning for eternity and nope! No clarification needed.

    New recommendations… one rentboy a month to assist with packages, and nubile little boys as offerings… preferably boys who are mute.

    Fucking stupidity at its best.

  • Ron in Houston

    Typical Republican strategy – put the foxes in charge of the hen house and try to put a ribbon on the turd.

  • Tony

    The solution is simple: Tax breaks are given to churches which, with transparent bookkeeping, can prove that they engage in charitable work.

    The income of clergy is taxable and any additional perks such as a housing allowance is considered a taxable benefit just like it is for everyone else.

    No christian can have a problem with rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, surely?

  • Luther

    “Religious Exceptionalism” – I am surprised that we are not hearing that we should leave the punishment of all religious individuals to the gods. (Maybe because that would put a huge dent in the Prison-Industrial Complex – sort of an “Immoral Dilemma”)

    I wonder if Grassley was one of those upset when a gay judge ruled on CA’s Prop 8?

  • Why exactly is being a Christian a disqualifier? I worked at a church that had a man who retired from 30 years in business to work at the church for free as the church’s finance man, keeping track of all money in and out, budgeting, giving, etc. He was so thorough, he’d send out monetary reports on a weekly basis. Many churches have this kind of accountability. Many churches have independent auditors who look at their books once or twice a year for legal and ethical reasons. Christians are supposed to keep other Christians accountable.

    As for these high profile ministries even needing to present their information, that’s a question of legality. I personally think they should have nothing to hide and standing behind the “principle of the thing” doesn’t quite sit right with me. I’m not a tax expert, so privacy issues of givers and receivers might actually be a real concern. It might be a slippery slope if they open their books to the government. It might be a slippery slope if the DON’T. Again, I’m not a tax expert.

    But, there are plenty of Christians who are more than qualified to hold the feet of their brothers (and sisters) to the fire when it comes to financial accountability.

    C.E. Moore


  • Riko

    C.E. Moore, it’s not that being Christian should be a disqualifier, its that there should not JUST be evangelical Christians on that committee.
    It would be like having a committee on what legal standards we should impose on hedge fund managers composed entirely of hedge fund managers. Or a committee to devise pollution standards for industry composed entirely of factory owners.

  • Brian

    ‘tards and criminals investigating ‘tards and criminals.

  • Sorry, not the main point, but, um….. “love offerings”?

  • Theresa

    @C.E. Moore — there was no suggestion that being a Christian is a disqualifier in this article. The question raised: is a commission comprised of ONLY evangelical Christians, many of whom could benefit from their own decions and recommendations,appropriate? Yes, there are many churches run in an entirely ethical way. Unfortunately, there are many that aren’t. IMO, framing the argument in the phony terms of your first statement is bearing false witness.

  • TheBlackCat

    Why exactly is being a Christian a disqualifier?

    The problem isn’t being a Christian. The problem is two fold: it is only Christians, and not just only Christians, only evengelical Christians. This has several problems:

    a. They do not represent the interests of the country as a whole, only a small part of it. They aren’t even a majority amongst Christians.

    b. There is at least an apparent conflict of interest, since evengelical ministries are particularly prone to taking advantage of the current tax system for personal benefit.

    c. Evenglical Christians have a much stronger tendency that other types to put religious goals, and goals of religious leaders, ahead of secular ones.

    d. It includes a number of people who have a vested interest in the status quo.

    e. The people who do not get a direct benefit from the status quo are under the influence of people who are.

    No one claims that there shouldn’t be any Christians, or even any evengelical Christians, on the committee. Of course their interests need to be heard. But a committee composed entirely of such a group cannot in any way be considered fair, representative, or trustworthy.

    I’m not a tax expert, so privacy issues of givers and receivers might actually be a real concern. It might be a slippery slope if they open their books to the government. It might be a slippery slope if the DON’T. Again, I’m not a tax expert.

    I think all that anyone is asking is that they have to follow the same rules as every other charitable organization. Is that really so unfair?

    Currently they automatically becomes a charity just by being a church, they have have to follow practically none of the rules or accountability practicies that other charities have to follow. They don’t even have to do any real charity work whatsoever.

    Surely if they are doing such good work they should have no problem meeting the requirements that non-religious charities have to meet, right? And if they can’t, do they really deserve to be called charities in the first place?

  • Steve

    Isn’t it a bit like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank?!! As the saying goes, who watches the watchers? They’d better make sure they have brushes big enough for the whitewash!!!

  • Fritzy

    A cynical move (are Rethuglicans capable of anything else these days?) to remove the last remenants of accountability from evangelical mega-churches.

    Seriously, do asshats like Grassly and his ilk give two wits about anyone that isn’t a white, male evangelical?

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    A clarification. Not all non-profits do charity work – some are just organizations of like-minded individuals. PTA’s, amateur astronomers and Volkswagen enthusiasts can form non-profits & get 501 status (if they meet the IRS requirements). If their annual income is over $25K, they have to file a taxes, which are available to for public scrutiny. (There are websites that have copies of past tax filings of non-profit organizations.)
    As of last year, organizations with income below $25k have to register every year to maintain their non-profit status, but they don’t have to file taxes. (Previously, they did nothing and the IRS lost track of them.)

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    When I first moved to the US, the nature of churches here mystified me. I am used to local churches being a “franchise” of the mother denomination. Like a McDonald’s franchise, they have limited local autonomy but are kept in line by the parent organization.
    In the U.S., ANYONE can form a church**. So any charismatic person with a half-baked theology (that is not vetted against the theology of a mother church) can call his organization a “ministry”, pitch any nonsense he wants (think PTL, Hovind, Ham & Comfort), get rich (if he can find enough followers to fill his collection plate) and, not only not pay taxes on his organizations income, but also never be required to verify the income sources and expenses of said organization by making his financial records public or filing taxes.
    It is no wonder that so many “churches” and “ministers” get caught in scandal & corruption – this set-up is both the perfect con and the perfect cover for a con.

    For example, if I opened a coffee shop or xtian bookstore in my local mall, I would have to obey all business laws and file & pay taxes on the business. If I tried to claim I took no salary but took out $50k in “expenses”, the IRS would slap me silly. Yet, these megachurches open coffee shops, daycares and bookstores, are exempt from many business laws and never declare or pay taxes on the income from these sources. As Fritzy said, it is just an end-run around accountability.

    **(While people can start religions in other countries, in the U.S. religion has a “Wild West” character that has seen this explode in the last 20 years. Megachurches have grown from about 600 in Year 2000 to nearly 4,000 last year.)

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