Thursday, January 18, 2024

Hillsdale College, Title IX, and the Charitable Contribution “Subsidy”

A recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece notified readers to a pending case against Hillsdale College by students who allege they were raped by classmates. The legal issue is whether Title IX -- the federal law that prevents sex discrimination in education -- applies to tax-exempt schools that do not receive federal funds. That’s the question that interest me. But I’m having trouble focusing on that issue because the WSJ piece is so weirdly inflammatory in its rhetoric that it is distracting. As tax professor Ted Seto pointed out in an email to the Taxprof Listserve, the claim (in the headline and first sentence of the piece) that the lawsuit is an “assault” on the college is absurdly hyperbolic.  Given that the plaintiffs are college students who allege they were raped by classmates at Hillsdale, the fact that the WSJ calls their lawsuit an “assault” on the college, despite the fact that they are trying to hold the school accountable for allegedly failing to meet minimum standards to protect them from harm, is to say the least distracting.  But, as they say, the WSJ Opinion Page will be the WSJ Opinion Page.

As for the substance of the legal issue, it’s actually quite important for nonprofit law generally, as well as being critical to the application of Title IX. Title IX is the federal law that governs sex discrimination in education. Congress wrote the law to apply to any “education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It does not apply to those that don’t. It is settled law that the “assistance” doesn’t have to go directly to the school, but that it is enough for the students who attend the school to receive them. What arguably is not settled is whether the fact that the school is exempt under section 501(c)(3) is sufficient by itself to constitute “Federal financial assistance.” On the one hand, there is a 2001 case out of the Northern District of Illinois called Johnny’s Icehouse, Inc., in which the court rejected the argument that the Amateur Hockey Association was subject to Title IX because of its tax exemption. It reasoned that Federal regulations define “Federal financial assistance” with a list of five enumerated types of assistance, none of which are the tax exemption provided in Section 501(c)(3) (to say nothing of the even juicier charitable tax deduction provided in Section 170). 34 C.F.R. 106.2(g). Since the regulations don’t define tax exemption to constitute Federal financial assistance for the purposes of law, the court held that it doesn’t.

On the other hand, there is a 2022 case out of the District of Maryland (currently on appeal to the Fourth Circuit) that holds the opposite. In that case, the court rejected a summary judgment motion by the defendant, who argued that Title IX didn’t apply to them because they receive no Federal financial assistance. The plaintiffs argued that tax exemption under section 501(c)(3) was sufficient financial assistance to subject the defendant school to Title IX, and the court agreed. It relied primarily on (very brief!) discussions of those two towering cases of the nonprofit law curriculum from 1983: Regan v. Taxation with Representation, 461 U.S. 540 (1983) and Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983). The court’s reasoning went something like this: (i) Taxation With Representation holds that tax exemption is a “subsidy;” (ii) in so holding, the Court said, “[a] tax exemption has much the same effect as a cash grant to the organization …;” (iii) Q.E.D., the fact that the Title IX regulations don’t specify that tax exemption is a form of financial assistance is not important because, “The Supreme Court has [recognized that tax exemption is] the equivalent of a cash subsidy.”

The problem with this reasoning is that it potentially opens up a can of worms in other areas of nonprofit law. At the heart of the theoretical foundation of all nonprofit law is the observation that tax exemption and the deduction for charitable contributions both acts as a subsidy and is different from other kinds of subsidies. It’s a subsidy that can be applied in a way that tries really hard to preserve the autonomy of the recipient from government control. That’s why it is a form of subsidy well designed for religious organizations, to take just one teensy example. Our Constitution prevents the government from establishing religion, which makes certain kinds of subsidies for religious organizations problematic. Because it is so broad and inclusive, the charitable tax exemption and contribution deduction serve the purpose of governmental support for religious organizations better in many instances than other types of more direct “financial assistance.” That’s true not just for religious organizations but in more instances than I could possibly list here.

With respect to actual question at hand – does Title IX apply to institutions that forego federal funds for themselves or their students – it seems to me that before deciding that based on the broad language of the Supreme Court about the equivalency of tax exemption and cash grants, I would want to know what Congress and/or the Department of Education think about the matter. By my reading, Congress’s choice of the phrase “Federal financial assistance” does not unambiguously include the concept of tax exemption. Therefore, the agency’s interpretation in regulations may be due some degree of deference (I know I know, everything I think I know about administrative law is either already wrong or will be by this time next year). In that case, I think a close reading of 34 C.F.R. 106.2(g) is warranted in this case. The operative question I think is whether Congress intended to apply Title IX to all schools that are tax-exempt? Or whether they intended Title IX to only apply to schools that accept some other kind of Federal financial assistance?

So, what is there to say about the pending lawsuit against Hillsdale College? First, the court will have to decide (without Sixth Circuit precedent) whether tax exemption alone constitutes “Federal financial assistance” sufficient to trigger the application of Title IX. In doing so, it has the reasoning of two sister district courts to aid its own analysis, one that applied a relatively narrow textual analysis of the Title IX regulations, one that reasoned in a broader way from principles announced in a 40 year old (but still great!) Supreme Court case. Obviously, I prefer the narrower analysis, although that doesn’t mean I necessarily know what that narrow analysis will produce in the suit against Hillsdale College. But also, while it is probably hyperbole to say (as Hillsdale’s president reportedly said) that a ruling for the plaintiffs on this issue would “sweep into the government’s net hundreds of thousands of American institutions that have sought to stay out of it,” it is also probably not completely untrue. Too many double negatives? Let me try again: I think that a ruling that relies on reasoning that tax exemption is the same as a cash subsidy in all cases is bad for nonprofit law. 

Benjamin Leff

January 18, 2024 in Church and State, Federal – Judicial, In the News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Church Ordered to Repay Over $500,000 to Bankruptcy Estate

W38s-level_origAs readers of this blog know, donations can bring with them a host of issues. These can include will disputes, naming rights conflicts, and of course donors seeking to perhaps unduly interfere with a charity's operations. The latter is illustrated by recent clashes between donors and universities relating to the Israel and Gaza; see, for example, the Philadelphia Inquirer story headlined  "Penn’s donor backlash raises questions about how much influence philanthropists should have" (subscription required).

A recent federal bankruptcy court case highlights another issue, and one that can result in the charity having to repay a major donation. In Arrowsmith v. First United Methodist Church Centre, Alabama (In re: Health Diagnostic Laboratory, Inc.), the Liquidating Trustee alleged to have traced between $550,000 and $850,000 as fraudulently transferred from the debtors to intermediaries and then from there to the defendant church (pictured here). After trial, the court ruled that the initial transfers were recoverable by the bankruptcy estate and that of those initial transfers $569,435 made its way to the church using accepted tracing methods.

Once that was proven, the main defense the church raised was an exception to recovery for a "transferee that takes for value, . . . in good faith, and without knowledge of the voidability of the transfer avoided." It was uncontested that the church had acted in good faith and without such knowledge, leaving the only open issue whether the church had provided anything of value in return for the funds it received. The church had issued the standard donation receipt stating it had not provided any goods or services in return for the donations, but the church argued that the donor had received intangible emotional benefits from contributing and, alternatively, that church members had provided (volunteer) services to  utilize the funds to further the churches charitable activities. The court found neither assertion demonstrated return value.

The church also argued that because it had spent the funds on its charitable activities, there were "changed circumstances" that should excuse the donations from recovery. However, the court noted that Congress has decided that the changed circumstances defense is not available when there has been a fraudulent convenience. The court also concluded the church could not invoke equity to allow this defense, since Congress had enumerated the available defenses.

Lloyd Mayer

 

November 22, 2023 in Church and State, Federal – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Another Federal District Court Concludes the TEGE Commissioner Can Approve Church Tax Inquiries

2019-01-09While we continue to wait for Treasury to finalize the proposed regulations issued in 2009 (!) under Internal Revenue Code 7611 , churches subject to IRS church tax inquiries continue to challenge the approval process for those inquiries. Late last month, another federal district court concluded that the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities (TEGE) Division Commissioner is a sufficiently "high-level Treasury official" to approve such inquiries under that section. In God's Storehouse Topeka Church v. United States, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas rejected the church's arguments that only a higher official - either the Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement or perhaps only the Commissioner or Treasury Secretary - are of high enough rank. In doing so, the court relied heavily on the reasoning that led to the same conclusion in United States v. Bible Study Time, Inc., 295 F.Supp.3d 606 (D.S.C. 2018). The court also rejected other objections to the IRS' third-party summons in the case.

Hat Tip: EO Tax Journal.

Lloyd Mayer

April 4, 2023 in Church and State, Federal – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 4, 2023

The Mormon Church v. the SEC

Joshua-hoehne-iZur_RC4y-I-unsplashAbout a week and a half ago, the SEC announced that it had charged Ensign Peak Advisors and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church) with violating Section 13(f) of the '34 Act and Rule 13f-1. Ensign Peak agreed to settle and pay a $4 million fine for failing to file Form 13F for about 22 years, while the Mormon church agreed to settle the allegation that Ensign Peak acted with its knowledge and direction and pay the SEC $1 million. On this blog we're usually more focused on tax (and, on occasion, state nonprofit) issues than we are securities regulation, but this is a big deal securities reg story involving nonprofits, so it's worth a little time to dig into and understand.

But before we dig into the story, it's worth laying some groundwork:

The Players:

The Mormon church is organized as a Utah corporation sole and, unsurprisingly, is exempt from tax under section 501(c)(3). (In fact, I'm putting the finishing touches on a book about the Mormon church and taxes, which will probably be published at the end of this year or sometime in 2024.) The church has a strong preference for centralization and hierarchy; in the U.S., the Utah corporation owns basically all of its property (unlike other denominations, which often incorporate different regions or congregations separately). The Mormon church is tremendously wealthy; just before the pandemic, a whistleblower alleged that it had $100 billion of invested assets (an amount that presumably didn't include, for instance, land it uses for church buildings).

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March 4, 2023 in Church and State, Current Affairs, Federal – Executive, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

New Suit Alleges San Diego Catholic Diocese Transferred Assets to Avoid Paying Sex Abuse Claims

In a news report on today's edition of Religion News Service, Alejandra Molina writes that a "law firm representing alleged sexual abuse victims in California is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, claiming the diocese fraudulently moved around real estate assets in an attempt to hide its wealth and avoid paying child sex abuse claims."

According to Molina, 

The suit, filed Tuesday (Feb. 21) by the Zalkin Law Firm in San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of more than 100 plaintiffs, alleges that the diocese transferred at least 291 real estate parcels, with a total tax-assessed value of more than $453 million, to parish corporations in order to defraud creditors at a time when the diocese was aware of “significant claims” by victims of childhood sex abuse.

The lawsuit alleges that these transfers “were done as part of a scheme created, masterminded, and designed” by the diocese and parishes so assets could not be “reachable” by creditors and those filing claims.

Molina continues:

The lawsuit claims that the diocese made these transfers beginning in September 2019, the same month the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 218, which, with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s endorsement, lifted a statute of limitation on childhood sex abuse claims. The law opened a three-year window beginning in 2020 that allowed alleged victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits without age limitations. 

The suit comes days after Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, announced that the diocese may declare bankruptcy as it faces “staggering” legal costs in dealing with hundreds of lawsuits alleging priests and others sexually abused children.

Meanwhile, Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the diocese, defended the transfers, saying they predate the Assembly bill. "Under canon law the assets of each parish have been separate and independent from the Diocese," Eckery said. "Over 10 years ago, long before Assembly Bill 218 was introduced, the Diocese began the process of formalizing in civil law the separate legal status of each parish and its assets. This included recording proper legal title for each parish to its own real estate."

Eckery added, “The Diocese has a profound obligation and moral duty to use its own assets to equitably compensate survivors.”

In an article published almost two weeks ago, The Associated Press reported Eckery as saying that the cost of settling the outstanding cases against the diocese which have not gone to trial would amount to $550 million. McElroy had also written a letter to be distributed to parishioners which revealed that most of the diocese’s assets had been used to settle previous allegations, ending in a $198 million payout in 2007.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Attorney Irwin Zalkin said the “diocese and its parishes have engaged in a conspiratorial enterprise to defraud child abuse victims and to deny them the justice they deserve.” He noted that if the diocese files for bankruptcy, it would have to identify and disclose its assets. He continued: “The question would be whether these properties that got transferred are assets of the diocese or not.”

He went on to state that the lawsuit seeks to reverse those transfers. He wants the properties to revert to diocesan ownership as “assets of the diocese as they are, and they should be.” Zalkin said his firm will pursue the matter through the civil court or through bankruptcy proceedings if the diocese files for bankruptcy. 

Zalkin denied that the filing of the lawsuit was timed to coincide with Ash Wednesday but noted instead that "it speaks volumes as to the moral conduct or lack of moral conduct of this diocese." According to Zalkin, the leaders of the diocese have "developed a PR spin on how they’re concerned about victims, and they want to do the right thing by victims, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the money and protecting their assets.” 

The lawsuit also claims that the diocese created an “Independent Compensation Fund,” in which survivors’ claims would be reviewed by an independent claim evaluator. If the claim qualified, a final settlement offer would be made. However, the lawsuit alleges that in reality, the fund “was designed to draw out individuals who would otherwise be eligible to bring a lawsuit pursuant to AB 218 and settle their claims for pennies on the dollar.”

“At the same time that the ‘Independent Compensation Fund’ was becoming operational and the Senate was passing AB 218 on to the Governor in mid-September of 2019, the Diocese was engaged in a massive effort to transfer title to hundreds of millions of dollars of real property for no consideration,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit states that “this fraudulent scheme” was meant to defraud “plaintiffs and others with claims based on clergy sexual abuse.”

Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law

 

February 22, 2023 in Church and State, Current Affairs, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 26, 2022

NYC's St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church

St._Nicholas_Chapel_October_1st_2022A couple days ago the New York Times published a story about the newly-rebuilt St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the one church destroyed in the 9-11 attacks. 

The church wasn't just rebuilt, though: it has been transformed from a humble local church. It is now the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church & National Shrine, 

a destination for all. It offers a bereavement center that will serve as a place for meditation and prayer for people of any faith. The structure itself cost $85 million and features white marble imported from the same quarry that provided stone for the Parthenon. Its interior is decorated with icons hand-painted by a monk in Greece. The building sits proudly on an elevated plaza called Liberty Park, which overlooks the pools of the 9/11 Memorial. Its translucent dome glows at night.

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December 26, 2022 in Church and State | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Rev. Jim Wallis: How Congress Can Bring Good News to the Poor This Advent

In an opinion piece in today's Religion News Service, the Rev. Jim Wallis, Director of Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice and the Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy, calls on Congress to bring good news to America's children this Advent by expanding the child tax credit.

Rev. Wallis begins his article by noting that as the season of Advent begins, millions of Christians around the world prepare to mark the birth of a child born on the margins of a great empire. He continues:

As it happens, Advent runs alongside another season of sorts in the nation’s capital: a lame-duck congressional session. Lawmakers aren’t expected to pass much legislation during this time — hence the fowl nickname — but they will likely consider extending Trump-era tax cuts for corporations.

This provides an opportunity — even a moral obligation — to bring good news to American children as well. Congress should not approve any year-end corporate tax breaks without expanding the child tax credit.

In the throes of the pandemic, in 2021, Congress expanded the child tax credit, raising the amount available to the poorest American families up to $3,600 a year per child and allowing the credit to be distributed across the tax year in monthly installments. The measure produced historic results. Even during a global pandemic and economic recession, the expanded credit helped drive the child poverty rate to a record low of 5.2%, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The current Congress allowed the expanded credit to expire at the end of 2021, leading to dire consequences: 3.7 million children, including 2.5 million Black and Latino kids, fell back into poverty. Some believe that number will rise to 4.1 million because of the still-rising costs of food, gas and housing.

According to Rev. Wallis, these numbers represent a deep — and totally unnecessary — moral failure. He laments the fact that

In a nation where millions claim to follow the teachings of Christ, this is strangely un-Christian behavior. In the Gospels, Jesus makes his concern for children crystal clear. In the Gospel of Matthew, he explicitly says that caring about God entails caring for children. “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me,” he says. 

Yet, says the Rev. Wallis,

In this country, we have constructed safety nets for corporations (in the form of financial bailouts), for farms (federal subsidies) and for retirees (Social Security.) Why haven’t we produced a social safety net for children, our most vulnerable members?

He recounts stories of how the poor have benefited from the expanded child tax credit:

I’ve heard stories about parents who used the tax credit to pay overdue doctor bills, buy new school clothes, fix the family car and pay for internet connections so their children don’t fall behind in school.

One study found that more than half of families that received the child tax credit used the money to put food on the table. Think about that: The politicians who ended this program literally took food from the mouths of children. We know that taking this money away will hurt children, who did nothing to deserve such harm. Research shows that children who live in a family with income below the poverty line display lower levels of educational attainment, poorer health and lower earnings.

Moreover, says the Rev. Wallis, expanding the child tax credit is more than moral; it is also economically sound:

A report from the Joint Economic Committee found that every dollar of CTC payments generates $8 in social and economic benefits, as families spend this money back into the local community. Despite fears that the credit would deter employment, research proved otherwise, with nearly 94% of parents saying they plan to continue working at the same rate or even more.

Reviving the expanded child tax credit isn’t political — it’s about staying true to our moral obligations by giving families the means to survive and thrive.

The line between faith and politics is not always direct, but caring for children should not be a political matter. We have a generational opportunity to alleviate the scourge of child poverty in this country. According to researchers, the child tax credit lifted millions of families above the poverty line, decreased food insecurity by nearly a third and cut child poverty by 40%.

We do not all have to agree on how to fight poverty in this country, but when we see something that works, such as the child tax credit, it makes little sense to stop merely because Congress can’t summon the political will. We have a moral obligation to ensure that every child — each made in the image of God — has the chance to grow and thrive. That is what it means to be “pro-family.”

As he concludes his opinion piece, Rev. Wallis reiterates his theme -- that it would be excellent policy implementation this Advent Season for Congress to expand the child tax credit:

When Jesus began his public ministry, he did so with a simple but profound message. He came, as the prophet said, to “bring good news to the poor.” This Advent, the expansion of the child tax credit would be welcome news for millions of American families.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Rev. Jim Wallis.

Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law

 

 

 

   

November 30, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Texas Tribune & ProPublica Investigate Churches Politicking

The Texas Tribune and Propublica published an investigation into churches, politicking and lack of IRS enforcement and quote a couple members, including myself, of this blog. From the article:

"At one point, churches fretted over losing their tax-exempt status for even unintentional missteps. But the IRS has largely abdicated its enforcement responsibilities as churches have become more brazen. In fact, the number of apparent violations found by ProPublica and the Tribune, and confirmed by three nonprofit tax law experts, are greater than the total number of churches the federal agency has investigated for intervening in political campaigns over the past decade, according to records obtained by the news organizations." . . . 

"Among the violations the newsrooms identified: In January, an Alaska pastor told his congregation that he was voting for a GOP candidate who is aiming to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying the challenger was the “only candidate for Senate that can flat-out preach.” During a May 15 sermon, a pastor in Rocklin, California, asked voters to get behind “a Christian conservative candidate” challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom. And in July, a New Mexico pastor called Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham “beyond evil” and “demonic” for supporting abortion access. He urged congregants to “vote her behind right out of office” and challenged the media to call him out for violating the Johnson Amendment."

Though the story is perhaps not news to those who follow this topic closely, it's a good piece, documenting pretty clear violations of the prohibition on charities from intervening in a political campaign. It has some nice history on the adoption of the amendment that I found useful alone. It also gives nice context for the PACI project where the IRS actually began actively looking at political activities in general, where many of the charities were indeed churches.

Though it is true that the IRS has barely enforced this provision over the years, the fact that there is a large effort among some churches to vigorously move into the politicking space today that is documented in this story is of concern. The biggest policy reason to focus in on this issue is summarized pretty well by the following quote by Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications for the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State: “If you pair the ability to wade into partisan politics with a total absence of financial oversight and transparency, you’re essentially creating super PACs that are black holes.” 

Philip Hackney

 

November 1, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, Federal – Executive, Federal – Legislative | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 22, 2022

King Charles III: Britain's New Defender of the Faith

Today's Religious News Service presents an interesting analysis of the new British monarch's task of making the country's rapidly expanding numbers of nonbelievers feel included. The analysis begins by noting that the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II's funeral was not entirely representative of Britain’s increasingly secular population. The funeral service was held in Westminster Abbey. According to RNS, the "medieval abbey, the sublime music and military processions were all a visual and aural feast, but the event was at its heart a Christian ceremony, with the coffin placed in front of the altar and presided over by robed clergymen."

With this in mind, RNS continues, the Queen's funeral "was not entirely representative of Britain’s increasingly secular population. Even its believers are less likely to be Christian than at the start of Elizabeth’s reign, with 2.7 million Muslims, 800,000 Hindus and a half-million Sikhs, among many other faiths. Christians, who once consisted mostly of various Protestants — chiefly members of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Church in Wales — and Roman Catholics, have been joined by a growing Pentecostal movement and other evangelical churches, according to the BBC."

In Britain, though, the Church of England remains the official, established church, with the monarch as its Supreme Governor, and since Elizabeth’s death on Sept. 8, we have seen it in the ascendant. Yet, there are also signs that the late monarch, now-King Charles III and the Church of England have recognized that the time has come to adjust.

RNS continues its analysis:

In a landmark speech in 2012 at Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the queen said of the Church of England that “Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”

She credited the established church with having done so already. “Gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely,” she said.

The new king has endorsed those words as recently as Sept. 9, the night after his mother died, in his first televised address to the British nation as its king. “The role and the duties of Monarchy also remain,” he said, “as does the Sovereign’s particular relationship and responsibility towards the Church of England — the Church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted.”

But he continued, ”In the course of the last 70 years we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths.”

Nearly 30 years ago, as prince of Wales, Charles articulated concern about other faiths and Christian denominations in modern Britain not feeling included, and controversially suggested that when he became king he should be called Defender of Faiths — plural— rather than the title Defender of the Faith bestowed on Henry VIII by the pope in 1521 and used by England’s monarchs since.

Anglicans reacted harshly to Charles’ gambit, fearing he would not be fully wedded to assuming his role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England when the time came. Even after he rescinded his statement in 2014, the moment haunted Charles. His statement on Sept. 9 came in part to reassure doubters, who then heard him proclaimed king and Defender of the Faith the next day before the Accession Council, who proclaimed him the new monarch.

Then, bit by bit, we saw more evidence of how the king and his advisers, as well as the late queen, through her funeral plans, tried to embrace other traditions.

The Sept. 12 service of thanksgiving for the queen’s life was held at Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral, the main church of the Church of Scotland. Representatives of other faiths were in attendance, and the Gospel was read by Mark Strange, primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the other main Protestant church in Scotland besides the Church of Scotland.

More surprising, a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans was read by Leo Cushley, the Catholic archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, and included lines often interpreted as encouraging ecumenical dialogue: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

When Charles then paid a visit to Northern Ireland, more efforts were made to include the Catholic population, for whom the monarchy has long been a sensitive issue. At St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast — where the president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, and Taoiseach (as Ireland calls its prime minister) Micheál Martin were in attendance — Eamon Martin, the Catholic archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, offered a prayer; others were said by Methodist and Presbyterian church leaders. At a service during Charles’ stop in Wales, prayers were said by Muslim and Jewish representatives as well as representatives of several Christian denominations.

But a reception at Buckingham Palace for 30 faith leaders on Friday (Sept. 16) — before the new king met any world leaders in London for the funeral, and even before he took part in a vigil with his siblings at the lying-in-state of his mother — spoke volumes about the importance Charles assigns religion in Britain.

Charles welcomed not only the Catholic archbishop of Westminster but Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy and Imam Asim Yusuf, telling them that Britain’s sovereign has an “additional” duty — presumably in addition to being Supreme Governor of the Church of England — to protect “the space for faith itself” in Britain. This duty, he said, is “less formally recognized but to be no less diligently discharged.”

He added: “It is the duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals. This diversity is not just enshrined in the laws of our country, it is enjoined by my own faith.”

That Charles’ words were backed up by his mother was evident in the state funeral Monday. The specialness of the Church of England and of multifaith, diverse Britain was acknowledged as a procession of religious representatives entered Westminster Abbey in advance of the main funeral party: Jews, Baha’is, Jains, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; Pope Francis was represented by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states.

Reading prayers during the service were the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; Shermara Fletcher, principal officer for Pentecostal and charismatic relations for Churches Together in England; the Rev. Helen Cameron, moderator of the Free Churches; and Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

The questions that remain are: "What happens now?" "What shall we see at Charles's coronation?" "Will it be all-inclusive affair, or will it be limited to clergy of the Church of England?" Of great importance also, is whether King Charles III, whose titles include "Defender of the Faith," be a defender of both believers and nonbelievers. After all, in the last British census (2011), a quarter of the population said they had no religion.

Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law 

 

September 22, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, In the News, International, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 19, 2022

Mass Corruption at Church: New York AG Investigation Reveals Harlem Clergy Took Secret Cash as They Sold Churches to Developer

According to New York State prosecutors, senior religious leaders conspired with a developer to sell seven churches in Harlem and Brooklyn in exchange for secret payments — only for the developer to waver from his promise to build new homes for the churches, in some cases demolishing them and letting the sites sit empty for years.

As reported by Nick Garber of Patch, prosecutors maintain that the deals, which netted the three church leaders nearly $2 million combined, were uncovered through an investigation launched by New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office into the developer, Moujan Vahdat. Vahdat and two of the church leaders reached settlements with the state last year, though the accusations against them have not previously been reported. A third pastor also under investigation is still battling the state in court.

According to prosecutors, the churches, all part of predominantly African-American denominations, were often struggling financially and saw the sales as potential lifelines. In a 2015 resolution, one church board supporting the sale to Vahdat wrote:

Not without a struggle, over the past several years we have worked hard to maintain the upkeep of the house of God. We understand that there has been a need for a greater vision from God to move this church forward in its fiscal responsibility and ministry.

However, authorities maintain, behind congregants' backs, church leaders were accepting cash payments and expensive gifts then turning a blind eye as Vahdat revised the sale contracts in his favor, squeezed churches for more money, and in one case, shut off a church’s heat in the middle of winter and allowed its ceiling to collapse onto a parishioner.

According to Patch, Vahdat’s attorney defended his client's conduct, telling the news organization that he remains focused on “bringing vibrant new church facilities to the community.” Indeed, said the attorney, even after the state’s intervention, many of the houses of worship are still doing business with Vahdat to this day.

In a court filing laying out their investigation, prosecutors wrote that Vahdat, a billionaire real estate and telecommunications magnate, began eyeing churches for possible development deals in 2013. However, prosecutors noted that despite his history in the real estate industry, Vahdat had no experience with church developments. But, prosecutors continued, Vahdat soon met Bishop Kevin Griffin, the senior pastor of Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ (COGIC), and by 2014, Griffin agreed to sell his dilapidated Amsterdam Avenue Church building for $2 million to Vahdat, who promised to replace it with an apartment building with space reserved for Childs Memorial. According to prosecutors, Griffin did not reveal to either his parishioners or New York State authorities that he personally received $450,000 once the church sale closed in early 2016 and an additional $440,000 in “finder’s fees” for introducing Vahdat to other church leaders. 

There followed a series of events whereby Vahdat was introduced to three other ministers and he purchased other churches in Harlem and one in Brooklyn using the same modus operandi. While claiming to be serving the Lord, the pastors were enriching themselves and really serving Vahdat. But by early 2018, the state attorney general’s office had begun investigating the church deals after hearing “allegations” that the churches’ sale terms had been changed. According to prosecutors, as the probe loomed, Vahdat asked two of the pastors to produce letters describing the personal payments he gave each of them as "having been made for charitable purposes for use on the churches’ behalf" — adding that he had given them the payments personally only for “expediency” and “convenience.”

According to Patch, clergy members pressed Vahdat in the ensuing months for answers about missing payments he owed to the churches and a lack of progress on the new developments. 

By 2021, state prosecutors intervened in the New York church dealings, reaching settlements with Vahdat in October and with two other pastors -- Rev. Melvin Wilson and Bishop G.M. Ingram -- in November. Vahdat agreed to "neither admit nor deny" the state's accusations, while Ingram and Wilson both promised not to make any public statements denying the investigation's findings.

"The clergy placed their self-interest ahead of the interests of the churches," the attorney general’s office wrote in a virtual presentation delivered to the AME churches in November 2021.

Let us take a close look at the punishment meted out to the offenders:

  • Wilson and Ingram’s settlements both required them to pay back the money they received in a series of installments — plus, in Ingram’s case, the proceeds from his Rolex watch, which he sold for $33,000;
  • Both men are barred from holding a role in any New York-based nonprofit or charity that involves dealing with money, though both can continue holding purely “spiritual” positions;
  • Yet, both Wilson and Ingram appear to maintain active roles in the AME Church. Ingram and his wife were thrown a retirement party in 2021 and were pictured attending an AME board meeting earlier this summer, while Wilson’s LinkedIn profile lists him as the pastor of an AME church in Orange, N.J.;
  • According to the Religious News Service (RNS), on August 31, the AME Church released a statement that condemned "the inappropriate practices of our colleague and the former presiding elder in the New York Conference, who currently pastors in the New Jersey Conference;"
  • Ingram will not take part in any denominational events until 2024, while discipline against Wilson will be determined by the bishop now in Ingram's former role;
  • Vahdat’s settlement, meanwhile, requires him to keep up to date on any payments owed to the churches and cover their legal fees.

I wonder as I conclude, what ever happened to this principle learned at Seminary: "He has shown you, O man (and woman), what is good; And what does the Lord require of you, But to do justly, To love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NKJV).

Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law 

 

 

 

September 19, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

NYTimes looks at Hasidic Jewish Schools in New York City

The New York Times provided an interesting, though critical, look into Yeshivas in New York City. The two points that stand out are that the children of these schools, particularly the boys, are roundly not able to pass basic competency state tests assessing learning, and that the schools are taking in lots of public dollars to accomplish this result.

The story necessarily raises the issue of what role education plays within the nonprofit sector; what role nonprofits should play in primary and secondary education in a democratic order; what role primary and secondary education ought to provide in a democratic order; and what role religion should play in shaping any of that education. I have a draft paper thinking about charter schools within that order that I will be posting soon, that confronts some of those questions. But, it does not confront the role of religion in that order.

Primary and secondary education play many roles, but the two most significant that resonate in the US conception seem to be preparing individuals to be able to be employed and support themselves and also to support a democratic order. We are not born with the ability to do either of these things and it is in all our interests to ensure the children of the country have the ability to engage in both endeavors. From the description in the article, these schools are likely failing on both counts.

And yet, the notion of freedom of religion for parents to train children to uphold the values they uphold remains strong in our nation. This comes into stark contrast though with maintaining a just political order. I think there is a lot for the nonprofit world to reflect upon in this article. Worth some thought.

From the story: "The leaders of New York’s Hasidic community have built scores of private schools to educate children in Jewish law, prayer and tradition — and to wall them off from the secular world. Offering little English and math, and virtually no science or history, they drill students relentlessly, sometimes brutally, during hours of religious lessons conducted in Yiddish.

The result, a New York Times investigation has found, is that generations of children have been systematically denied a basic education, trapping many of them in a cycle of joblessness and dependency.

Segregated by gender, the Hasidic system fails most starkly in its more than 100 schools for boys. Spread across Brooklyn and the lower Hudson Valley, the schools turn out thousands of students each year who are unprepared to navigate the outside world, helping to push poverty rates in Hasidic neighborhoods to some of the highest in New York.

The schools appear to be operating in violation of state laws that guarantee children an adequate education. Even so, The Times found, the Hasidic boys’ schools have found ways of tapping into enormous sums of government money, collecting more than $1 billion in the past four years alone."

There are many highly critical responses of this article from the Orthodox community. Here is one.

Philip Hackney

September 13, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, In the News, Religion, State – Executive, State – Legislative | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Representatives Ask IRS About Church Status of Family Research Council

Propublica reported a few weeks ago that the IRS had granted church status to a right-wing think tank, the Family Research Council. Sam Brunson blogged on here about why FRC might be interested in obtaining this special status.

Now, 40 Democratic representatives from the US House have sent a letter to the Treasury Department and the IRS asking them to explain this decision. Here is the letter.

"We are writing to express concern regarding the Family Research Council’s (FRC) tax-exempt status as an “association of churches.” In addition, we request a review of the existing Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance related to political advocacy organizations self-identifying as “churches” to obtain the status of churches, integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches.

As you know, Congress has enacted many special tax rules that apply to churches and religious organizations. Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (Code), churches are tax exempt organizations and are not required to file IRS Form 990, which provides transparency on tax-exempt organizations’ board members, key staff salaries, donations, and large payments to contractors. Further, there are special limitations on how and when the IRS can conduct an
examination of churches. In accordance with section 7611 of the Code, the IRS cannot conduct tax inquiries of churches without approval from a “high-level Treasury official.”

Philip Hackney

August 4, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, Federal – Executive, Federal – Legislative, In the News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Family Research Council Is Now a Church

Cosmic-timetraveler-_R1cc2IHk70-unsplashA little over a week ago, ProPublica reported that the Family Research Council filed with the IRS to be treated as an association of churches for tax purposes.

Is the FRC an association of churches? Not in any colloquial sense; rather, it's an advocacy group that, in its words, works to "advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview" (which it does, according to SPLC research, largely by denigrating and attacking the LGBTQ community). It claims to meet 11 of the IRS's 14 criteria for qualifying as a church, though many of those claims seem like a stretch.

And its worth noting at this point that FRC isn't the only organization to claim (and obtain) church status where the claim of being a church is a stretch. It has become an aspiration model for activist organizations. And why?

Continue reading

July 19, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

RNS: In Defiance of US Bishops, Nancy Pelosi Receives Communion at the Vatican

Last week's Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization has left the American public very divided. Many are angry; many are happy. The debate over the right to an abortion and women's rights to make their own decisions about their bodies has heated up. In the midst of this heated atmosphere, RNS reported today that in defiance of some U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi received Communion during a Mass presided over by Pope Francis on Wednesday (June 29) for the celebration of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Back in Speaker Pelosi's home diocese of San Francisco, California, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced on June 1 that the Catholic congresswoman is banned from receiving Communion due to her abortion rights stance. Since then, she has been barred from receiving the sacrament in four other dioceses

Pelosi called the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs an “outrageous and heart-wrenching” decision. The US Catholic Bishops lauded the court's decision, which they said overturned “an unjust law that has permitted some to decide whether others can live or die.”

But earlier today, Wednesday, Speaker Pelosi met with Pope Francis before the service and received a blessing, according to one of the Mass attendees. 

Sitting in the VIP section during the traditional Mass at St. Peter’s to celebrate the patron saints of Rome, Pelosi listened to Pope Francis’ homily before receiving Communion from one of the many priests in the basilica, according to eyewitnesses. Francis has rarely distributed Communion, citing precisely the desire to prevent politicization of the sacrament.

In his homily, Francis urged the faithful to “Go to the crossroads and bring everyone: blind, deaf, lame, sick, righteous, sinful, everyone, everyone! This word of the Lord must resound, resound in the mind and heart: everyone! In the church there is room for everyone!” He added that “many times we become a church with open doors but to dismiss people, to condemn people.”

The RNS article concludes by noting that

Last year, Pope Francis told reporters on his return flight from Central Europe that he has never denied Communion to anyone and criticized bishops who didn’t act as shepherds and “aligned themselves with political life, on political problems.” The Vatican’s doctrinal department, in a letter in May of last year, urged the U.S. bishops to engage in dialogue among themselves and with Catholic politicians before reaching any decision.

Well, in this, as in an increasing number of philosophies, there appears to be a great divide between these United States of America and the Rest of the World!

Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law

June 29, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, Federal – Judicial, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Should Private Schools Proven to Discriminate Intentionally Receive Government Aid?

    In thinking about the recent Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin, No. 20-1088, which deals with private religious schools and state tuition programs, I raised the question of whether government aid should be awarded to private schools at all.  One reason I raised this issue is because private schools are not subject to the same civil rights laws as public schools.  Almost one year ago to the day, I blogged about how historically private schools have not been subject to federal civil rights laws because they did not receive federal funds.  I also noted that perhaps unknowingly, by virtue of receiving P.P.P. loans during the pandemic, private schools became subject to such laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  In other words, private schools with P.P.P. loans cannot engage in racial discrimination against employees, students, parents, or other participants.  This includes in terms of employment, admissions, enrollment, and other treatment. 

    One must consider the compelling question whether private schools (which in the absence of a P.P.P. loan or other federal funding) are permitted to run afoul of civil rights laws, should be able to receive government aid under a state tuition program, which appears to be the case with the Maine law.  Granted, private schools (non-religious and religious) are subject to nondiscrimination requirements by virtue of their 501(c)(3) status, which they must attest to annually either by filing Form 990 or a statement with the IRS, respectively.  Nevertheless, it is important to consider that Title VI imposes prohibitions against racial discrimination not covered by section 501(c)(3).  One definite difference is that private schools who become subject to federal civil rights laws, e.g., those who receive P.P.P. loans, may have to pay compensatory damages to individuals who prove intentional discrimination in lawsuits against the schools.  In addition, injunctive relief may be awarded to such individuals.  In other words, these private schools are no longer shielded from causes of action from individuals and families who have faced racial discrimination at their hands.

    In the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts himself acknowledged the distinction between public schools and private schools in this regard:  “[T]o start with the most obvious, private schools are different by definition because they do not have to accept all students…”  Given that private schools (who have not received federal funds) largely are shielded from damages or injunctions for intentional discrimination which can be proven, should they be allowed to receive government aid?  This is the larger question that must be answered.

 

Khrista McCarden

Hoffman Fuller Professor of Tax Law

Tulane Law School

June 23, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, Federal – Judicial, In the News, Religion | Permalink

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Supreme Court Rules Maine Cannot Exclude Religious Private Schools from Aid - The Larger Question

    Today in Carson v. Makin, No. 20-1088, the Supreme Court ruled that Maine cannot exclude religious private schools from a state tuition program.   According to NBC News, under the state tuition program in Maine, taxpayer money is made available to families in remote areas that lack public high schools.  Under the state law, these families could use taxpayer money to send their children to public or private schools in other communities, as long as the schools were not “sectarian,” i.e., did not promote a particular belief or faith system and teach “through the lens of this faith.”  It was a 6 to 3 vote against the Maine law led by a conservative majority.  Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority and stated the ruling does not require states to support religion.  He notes that it requires states that choose to subsidize private schools not to discriminate against religious ones.  In separate dissents, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Stephen G. Breyer strongly objected on separation of church and state grounds.  A full copy of the decision may be found here

    One of the lawyers for the families who challenged the Maine law summed up the decision as “a major step for religious schools to receive the same kind of government aid as other private schools.”  Even if one agrees that religious private schools should not be treated differently than non-religious private schools, an important and long-standing threshold question remains:  Should taxpayer money be made available for private school tuition at all?  

 

Khrista McCarden

Hoffman Fuller Associate Professor of Tax Law

Tulane Law School

June 21, 2022 in Church and State, Federal – Judicial, In the News | Permalink

Friday, June 17, 2022

Can Religious Freedom Protect Right to Abortion?

Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, a progressive synagogue in Palm Beach County not affiliated with a broader denomination filed a lawsuit last week challenging Florida legislation banning most abortions after 15 weeks, under the State Constitution’s right to privacy and freedom of religion. 

The Congregation apparently argues that under the Jewish religion “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.”

I have not found the complaint but would gladly post if anyone has found it online. I am wondering whether they are bringing a claim under the Religious Freed Restoration Act (presumably that would be Florida's version of that statute). EDIT: Here is the complaint 

Seems like this should be an interesting case to follow for nonprofits given the potential of the public policy requirement to play a role in how we think about nonprofits engaged in the abortion realm after the Dobbs opinion comes out.

Philip Hackney

 

 

June 17, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 14, 2022

Russian Orthodox Parishes in Europe in Uproar as War Rages in Ukraine

Religion News Service (RNS) is today reporting that the war in Ukraine has split Russian Orthodox parishes across Europe, forcing believers outside Russia to either stay loyal to the church leadership in Moscow despite its support for the invasion, leave the church in protest or seek a messy middle ground.

Writing for today's edition of RNS, Tom Heneghan states:

While public opinion in Europe has almost unanimously denounced the war Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed, the small communities of Russian Orthodox faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate are in a bind because its head, Patriarch Kirill, has come out solidly in its favor.

Many of these believers are Western-born descendants of earlier emigres who have few links to today’s Russia but a faith anchored in the Russian tradition. Some belong to other Orthodox churches but happen to frequent a Russian church. 

Meanwhile, in Paris, Metropolitan John of Dubna, Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe, in an open letter to Patriarch Kirill on March 9, struck a typical note by declaring solidarity with Ukraine and calling the war “monstrous and senseless.” While denouncing Kirill’s support of the war and asking for his intervention, Dubna stopped short of taking action that might signal a formal break.

Others stopped commemorating the patriarch in their liturgies -- an act which ranks as a serious protest in Orthodox churches -- but otherwise kept their dissent discreet. Only more attentive parishioners would notice at a Sunday service that the patriarch was not mentioned in normal commemorative prayers.

The Parish of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam, where several hundred worshippers from about 20 nations attend weekly services in Dutch, Russian or English, has learned how complicated this choice can be. Probably the first Western Orthodox church to break ties with Moscow over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, St. Nicholas went from loyal criticism of Moscow’s decision to switching its allegiance to the rival Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.

“There are many traditions within Russian Orthodoxy,” Archimandrite Meletios Webber, head of the parish, told the congregation earlier today, Monday, March 14.

The London-born archimandrite — a monsignor in Roman Catholic terminology — spoke in a clipped English accent at his church near central Amsterdam. Another Orthodox priest translated his remarks into Russian.

“This tradition cannot be attached to any organization or any thought which promotes violence and warfare,” said Meletios, born an Anglican but converted during his studies at Oxford by the influential British Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware.

Heneghan tells the story leading to this announcement in lively and interesting detail:

Horrified by the ferocious fighting in Ukraine, the four priests of St. Nicholas first signed a petition in early March asking Patriarch Kirill to urge Russian authorities to end the war. But Kirill, doubling down like his ally Putin, came out in favor of the war, prompting a petition from Orthodox priests in Russia against the violence. Even the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church loyal to Moscow, Patriarch Onufry, appealed to Putin for “an immediate end to the fratricidal war.”

The priests in Amsterdam decided they could no longer commemorate Kirill at their divine liturgies and informed their superior, Archbishop Elisey of the Moscow Patriarchate in The Hague.

On March 6, Archbishop Elisey turned up unannounced just before their Sunday service. He took over the celebration and made sure a deacon from outside the parish commemorated Kirill.

“His visit was like a spiritual tank sent to our parish,” one parishioner complained afterwards to the Dutch daily Nederlands Dagblad.

The archbishop, who came in a car from the Russian embassy, warned the priests that both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Foreign Ministry were closely following developments in the parish.

The priests saw Archbishop Elisey’s warning as a threat but loyally mentioned his name during the service. “Then we started making contact with other hierarchs,” Meletios said.

“We have not left the Moscow Patriarchate,” the priests wrote on the parish website last week in an initial report about the archbishop’s unexpected visit. They listed examples from the past when dropping a patriarch’s name from a liturgy was not considered a schism.

But by Tuesday, March 8, a “Z” — the symbol widely used in support of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine — was daubed on the church’s gates. During the week, the parish received enough other threats that it decided to close down until further notice.

It was “no longer possible to function within the Moscow Patriarchate and provide a spiritually safe environment for their believers,” they concluded in another report on Saturday.

“We cannot go back on our decision to distance ourselves from Patriarch Kirill. Our consciences will not allow that,” they said. “So we see ourselves forced to link with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”

The priests have now asked Archbishop Elisey to officially dismiss them from his diocese and asked Metropolitan Athenagoras, the top cleric of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Benelux countries, to take them under his wing.

According to the priests, they took this "very difficult step with pain in [their] hearts." As far as they are concerned, they and their parish "are concerned with the kingdom of Heaven and not with any political movement of any kind of kingdom here on Earth.”

As an ordained minister of religion myself, I stand in solidarity with these priests who have chosen to speak truth to power. I wish them well.

Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law

 

March 14, 2022 in Church and State, Current Affairs, In the News, International, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Study: Attendance Hemorrhaging at Small and Midsize US Congregations

An article in today's Religion News Service reports that the most recent round of the Faith Communities Today survey (FACT), found a median decline in worship attendance of 7% between 2015 and 2020. What is also quite interesting is that the survey period ended before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new survey of 15,278 religious congregations across the United States confirms trends sociologists have documented for several decades: Congregational life across the country is shrinking.

According to RNS, 

The survey, fielded just before the coronavirus lockdown, finds that half of the country’s estimated 350,000 religious congregations had 65 or fewer people in attendance on any given weekend. That’s a drop of more than half from a median attendance level of 137 people in 2000, the first year the FACT survey gathered data.

Scott Thurman, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and the survey’s author, had this to say: “The dramatically increasing number of congregations below 65 attendees with a continued rate of decline should be cause for concern among religious communities.”

Produced by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the FACT survey consists of self-reported questionnaires sent out to congregational leaders every five years since 2000 — mostly through 20 collaborating denominations and faith traditions. According to RNS, the most recent survey found that mainline Protestants suffered the greatest decline over the past five years (12.5%), with a median of 50 people attending worship in 2020. Evangelical congregations declined at a slower rate (5.4%) over the same five-year period and had a median attendance of 65 people at worship. Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches declined by 9%. The only groups to boost attendance over the past five years were non-Christian congregations: Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish. 

The survey found that half of the nation’s congregations were in the South, even though only 38% of the U.S. population lives there. It also suggested that small congregations in rural areas and small towns may be unsustainable. Nearly half of the country’s congregations are in rural areas (25%) or small towns (22%), while the 2020 census found that only 6% of Americans live in rural areas and 8% in small towns.

One bright spot in the study is this: Congregations are becoming more racially diverse. In 2000 only 12% of congregations were multiracial. In the latest survey, the figure climbed to 25%.

The survey defined multiracial congregations as those where 20% or more of participants are not part of the dominant racial group.

Many researchers are now investigating if racial diversity also equals integration in relationships — or if people are simply attending church together. Previous research has also found increased diversity is one-directional.

“It’s still in the direction of predominantly white churches becoming less predominantly white, said Chaves. “It’s very little in the other direction. There’s not a big increase in diversity in predominantly Black churches.”

Professor Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law

 

October 14, 2021 in Church and State, Current Affairs, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Religious Organizations Prepare for 'Potential Onslaught' of Evictions

Writing for today's edition of Religion News Service (RNS) news, Kathryn Post states that the Supreme Court’s August 26 decision to end the federal eviction moratorium brings new challenges for religious leaders and organizations working to aid those at risk for homelessness. Post cites to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicating that more than 3.6 million Americans say they could face eviction in the next two months.

This startling statistic has brought the following response from Sarah Abramson, vice president of strategy and impact at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston: "We’re very, very nervous. There is already a tremendous housing shortage in Boston. And we know from our data, and from the experience of our partners who do this work, just how difficult it was for somebody who has been evicted in the past to get housing.”

Jerrel T. Gilliam, executive director of Light of Life Rescue Mission in Pittsburgh, also shared concerns: “We are going to need to be very creative, and to think outside the box in order to prepare for what could be a potential onslaught of people needing assistance in a short amount of time.” 

In its August 26 decision, the Court ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the authority to establish a federal eviction moratorium. According to the Court, such a moratorium requires congressional approval. The decision comes as renters and landlords face a backlog of promised funds. According to Census Bureau data, the government has thus far distributed only about $5.1 billion of the $46.5 billion in federal rental assistance funds intended to prevent eviction.

“We definitely have to work hard to make sure that money reaches people,” said Shams DaBaron, a New York activist who also goes by “Da Homeless Hero.” “We have to cover both sides: these small landlords that need it, and those who are extremely poor.”

DaBaron is currently living in an apartment with the support of a voucher program, but he says the city is behind on three months of rent. An eviction moratorium is one measure that can help buy more time while such funds face bureaucratic delays.

DaBaron gained national attention as unofficial spokesperson for the residents of the Lucerne, a hotel-turned-shelter during the pandemic in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that became the center of New York’s “homeless hotel” debate. When he was not advocating for his fellow residents, DaBaron partnered with local group Open Hearts to develop a program called Soulful Walk and Talks. The program provided hotel shelter residents the opportunity to walk to the nearby Riverside Park with local faith leaders from a range of religious traditions who provided a safe space for spiritual reflection.

“We didn’t want to make it a religious thing, but we understand the value of spirit, of soul, of that deep essence within everybody,” said DaBaron. “One of the things that came out of it, from talking to many of the faith leaders, is that many of them were transformed, just as many of us were transformed.”

“It was definitely very impactful,” said Rabbi Lauren Herrmann of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, who joined in the Walk and Talks and organized other clergy participants. “For one thing, I really understood for the first time in my life the issues surrounding the shelter system, and why people choose to be on the streets instead of being in shelters. … The shelter system is deeply broken, and some of the stories I heard were deeply upsetting.”

Herrmann and DaBaron see the Soulful Walk and Talks as tending to the essential spiritual needs of those facing homelessness. They hope to continue and expand the program as the federal eviction moratorium lifts. Yet, DaBaron and Herrmann also pointed to structural changes that need to take place. New York state implemented a new eviction moratorium on Sept. 1 that extends until January 2022. However, the moratorium does not address the city’s lack of affordable housing, the income cliffs that foster dependence on government programs and the health and safety risks facing those in congregate shelters, where many former Lucerne residents are finding themselves since the hotel shelter closed this summer.

In Pittsburgh, Light of Life Rescue Mission takes a multifaceted approach to homelessness by providing a range of services including case management, education, unemployment services and accommodations for those facing housing insecurity.

Gilliam, the Christian organization’s executive director, is concerned the end of the eviction moratorium will mean a sudden, sharp increase in the number of residents facing evictions. At one point during the pandemic, evictions in Pittsburgh slowed to a complete halt — in a typical year, according to Gilliam, Pittsburgh sees 14,000 evictions.

Gilliam suggested implementing preventive measures that would allow landlords to receive rent payments while enabling those at risk for evictions to find suitable housing.

“We’re pleading with everyone,” said Gilliam. “Let’s try to get people help while they’re still in the home and help the landlord have another month or two of rent, so that we can find a place for them without them having to pass through homelessness to get assistance.”

The pandemic has not been as kind to all religious organizations working to serve those facing housing insecurity. Chaplain Asma Inge-Hanif, founder and executive director of Muslimat Al Nisaa, has been serving the Baltimore community for 30 years. The organization provides health, education and social services to all, regardless of their ability to pay, and its Home Shelter is especially designed to meet the needs of Muslim women. She says her organization has served thousands of people over the years.

In the last year and a half, Inge-Hanif almost died from COVID-19 and lost her organization’s signature location. “I couldn’t pay the rent anymore, even though they claim there was an eviction moratorium,” she said. Now, Inge-Hanif is working to keep the shelter open on a small scale so she can help meet housing needs, especially those of people arriving from Afghanistan.

“I’m getting so many requests all the time from people who are getting evicted,” she said. “It’s often people who have no status and people of color. Everyday I get seven to 10 requests for shelter and housing. And I can’t help them.”

As the federal eviction moratorium ends, Inge-Hanif is hoping to raise money for an apartment building so she can house more people. She also says governments need to make rental assistance and other services more accessible.

“That’s why people are being evicted. They can’t get through the paperwork,” said Inge-Hanif. “The people who need the help are not in a position to maneuver through all the red tape. … The way the system is set up prevents the people who are most in need from actualizing success and being self-sufficient.”

That, indeed, appears to be the sad truth.

Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law

September 9, 2021 in Church and State, Current Affairs, Federal – Judicial, Federal – Legislative, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)