Tuesday, December 13, 2022
Since I occasionally write about tax law and religious organizations, I am sometimes asked if there is a realistic possibility that churches might lose their tax exempt status given scandals ranging from televangelist salaries to sexual abuse. My go-to response is that there are hundreds of congregations in every congressional district, and if there is one thing that would unite them it would be protecting that status. So no.
Making me wonder if my response has been too glib are the following recent pieces on this topic that the authors thought worth the effort to write. The first relates to certain specific churches, but the other two are more broad based defenses of the exemption, responding to recent criticisms:
- Taylor Holley, Note, Auditing Scientology: Reexamining the Church's 501(c)(3) Tax Exemption Eligibility, 54 Tex. Tech. L. Rev. 345 (2022). The author raises commerciality, private inurement, and fundamental public policy concerns with Scientology organizations.
- Reece Barker, Note, A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Taxation of Churches, 47 BYU L. Rev. 1001 (2022). The author argues "[a]though religious organizations are currently exempted from taxation, this issue is important because there is a growing appetite to remove the exemptions. For example, many view religion as an untapped source of revenue for cash-strapped governments. Others think they can coerce religious organizations to bend to the will of popular opinion through revocation of tax exemption. But whether the tax is designed to increase revenue or to align doctrine with popular opinion, religious taxation is off the table. It is off the table because tax exemption for religious organizations is not a reward, benefit, tax break, or legislative prerogative; it is a right rooted in the First Amendment. A right that acts as a crucial bulwark of society because it enables state and church autonomy that protects each from exercising undue influence over the other." (footnotes omitted)
- Howard Husock, Removing the Tax Exemption for Religious Congregations Is the Wrong Move for Our Polarized Nation (Opinion, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nov. 17, 2022). He concludes "[t]he value of religion in providing links among neighbors, promoting friendship, and building a foundation for good works in an increasingly fragmented society transcends any tax accounting. During this time of extreme polarization, limiting the tax deduction for America’s most popular form of charitable giving would be exactly the wrong move."
And as an added bonus, another recent article addresses the perennial topic of churches and politics:
- Julia Camp, John Masselli, and Amy J.N. Yurko, Religion versus Politics: An age-old question with continued importance to the U.S. nonprofit classification system, The ATA Journal of Legal Tax Research (2022) (subscription required). From the abstract: "Following the awarding of church status to some seemingly politically charged organizations, we investigate this issue and propose that it is time for the U.S. Congress and the IRS to revisit, evaluate, and revamp the existing system to prevent political organizations from abusing the tax provisions intended to benefit churches."
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
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
Thursday, September 22, 2022
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
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
Tuesday, September 13, 2022
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.
Monday, August 8, 2022
The Philanthropy News Digest is reporting that the University of Haifa in Israel has announced gifts totaling $121.5 million from Giving Pledger Elie Horn to establish two scholarship funds. Mr. Horn, who lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is the Syrian-born Brazilian Jewish founder of Cyrela Brazil Realty, Brazil's largest real estate company. Through their foundation (The Elie and Susy Horn Foundation), Horn and his wife, Susy, have supported Jewish communities and causes around the world in countries including Israel, Korea and Belarus.
The gifts include $120 million over 20 years in support of Ahavat Olam (Eternal Love) scholarships for students interested in pursuing in-depth studies in Jewish religion, heritage, and history. Scholarship recipients participate in enrichment courses and activities in fields promoting pluralistic Judaism, Jewish culture and heritage, and Jewish history. The remaining $1.5 million from Horn and his sister, Joyce Horn, which will be matched by the university, is earmarked for women who face difficulties financing their studies. The new scholarships will be available for the 2022-23 academic year.
The Philanthropy News Digest reports that in a press release, University of Haifa president and professor Ron Robin stated, "I’m proud that we are able to offer these scholarships and to help a large and diverse circle of candidates, particularly after two difficult years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Haifa promotes social mobility, and thanks to these new scholarships we will be able to make higher education accessible to wider circles who might otherwise have chosen not to pursue academic studies due to financial considerations. We are tremendously grateful to Mr. Elie Horn for his historic gift, and we look forward with excitement to the upcoming academic year.”
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law
Monday, July 18, 2022
Over the last decade or so, we've seen a movement demanding that the IRS strip the tax exemption from churches that discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. Those demands are rooted in the Supreme Court's Bob Jones decision, which held that the requirements for tax exemption implicitly include not violating a fundamental public policy. The demands generally assume (or, sometimes, explicitly say) that LGBTQ rights have become a public policy, sufficiently embraced by government as to meet the "fundamental" standard. (David Herzig and I have written a little about this, including here.)
For various reasons (including especially that Bob Jones has only been expanded beyond racially-discriminatory private schools in the rarest of circumstances), these assertions have had rhetorical, but not legal, power. And I assumed they were rooted in the post-Bob Jones era.
But in researching a new project (I'm currently finish a draft of a book on Mormonism and the tax law, hopefully arriving sometime next year!) I learned that this kind of rhetorical activism predates 1983. In fact, in the early 1970s, the Feminist Party filed a complaint with the IRS asserting that the Catholic Church should lose its tax exemption. Why? Because of its involvement in the abortion debate.
Of course, it didn't ground the complaint in fundamental public policy. Instead, it claimed that the Church violated the tax law's restriction on lobbying.
The Feminist Party's complaint proved exactly as effective as later complaints in the LGBTQ context. Still, it's interesting to see tax exemption wielded as a pressure point on religious institutions before Bob Jones expressly made that a constitutional requirement, and it's interesting today to see it in the context of a reemergent abortion debate.
Samuel D. Brunson
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
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
Thursday, June 23, 2022
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.
Hoffman Fuller Professor of Tax Law
Tulane Law School
Friday, April 15, 2022
Charity Scandals: AME Church Suspends Pensions; Finance Director Stole $4.7 Million from WV Charity; Update on Minnesota's Feeding the Future
It sadly has become difficult to keep up with all of the news reports about charity insiders misusing funds - maybe it is time to update the 2003 paper by Marion R. Fremont-Smith and Andras Kosaras on Wrongdoing By Officers and Directors of Charities: A Survey of Press Reports 1995-2002, 42 Exempt Organization Tax Review 25. So I am going to limit my reporting here to several recent reports involving millions of dollars each:
- AME Church: The Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required) that the African Methodist Episcopal Church "has suspended retirement payments and discussed steep cuts to the savings of its ministers amid an investigation into missing funds." The church further said that there is an ongoing investigation, including by federal law enforcement, of a possible financial crime. The pension fund, which reportedly had about $120 million in assets as of 2017, serves about 5,000 retired clergy and church workers. Additional coverage: Religious News Service.
- River Valley Child Development Services (West Virginia): MarketWatch reports that a court has ordered the former director of business and finance of this charity to repay $4.7 million that she stole in the wake of her guilty plea and sentencing to seven years in prison. The article goes on to note that as part of her restitution agreement she has agreed to forfeit six airplanes apparently from a small aircraft charter and aviation services company she owned, the proceeds from the sale of three houses, and two cars.
- Feeding the Future (Minnesota) Update: I previously reported on the apparent diversion of tens of millions of dollars from federal funds provided to this charity. The Star Tribune reports that a judge will now oversee the closure of the charity after a request from the Minnesota Attorney General's office and the charity's board voting to voluntarily dissolve it. The court has begun the process of obtaining financial documentation and a complete inventory of the charity's assets. To date no charges have been filed, but federal and state investigations are ongoing. Extensive additional coverage: N.Y. Times.
Wednesday, April 13, 2022
IRS on Crowdfunding, Suspension of Delinquent Notices, Private Foundation Info, and Religious and Apostolic Associations
- Crowdfunding Taxation and Reporting: In Fact Sheet FS-2022-20, the IRS says the following about taxation of crowdfunding proceeds:
If a crowdfunding organizer solicits contributions on behalf of others, distributions of the money raised to the organizer may not be includible in the organizer's gross income if the organizer further distributes the money raised to those for whom the crowdfunding campaign was organized.
If crowdfunding contributions are made as a result of the contributors' detached and disinterested generosity, and without the contributors receiving or expecting to receive anything in return, the amounts may be gifts and therefore may not be includible in the gross income of those for whom the campaign was organized. Contributions to crowdfunding campaigns are not necessarily a result of detached and disinterested generosity, and therefore may not be gifts. Additionally, contributions to crowdfunding campaigns by an employer to, or for the benefit of, an employee are generally includible in the employee's gross income.
In the same fact sheet, the IRS also notes that crowdfunding platforms "may be required to report distributions of money raised if the amount distributed meets certain reporting thresholds by filing Form 1099-K" (now generally $600, see Form 1099-K instructions). But it also notes recent legislation clarifies that no such reporting is required "if the contributors to the crowdfunding campaign do not receive goods or services for their contributions".
- Suspension of Delinquent Notices: The IRS announced in March that it is suspending the issuance of several notices generally mailed to tax-exempt or government entities relating to delinquent returns. These include notices relating to Form 990/990-EZ/990-N, Form 99o-PF, Form 990-T, Form 5227, and form 1120-POL.
- Private Foundation Revised Guidance & Updated Data: The IRS issued two revised technical guides relating to private foundations: Publication 5616 (relating to self-dealing under IRC section 4941), and Publication 5590 (relating to taxable expenditures under IRC section 4945). It also released microdata and tables with Tax Year 2018 data on private foundations, now available at the Statistics of Income private foundation webpage.
- Religious and Apostolic Associations: Finally, the IRS also issued a revised technical guide relating to religious and apostolic associations tax exempt under IRC section 501(d), Publication 5627.
Monday, March 14, 2022
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
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Today's Religion News Service (RNS) is reporting that according to a survey conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, more than half of Christian congregations say they have started a new ministry or expanded an existing one during the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, in fact, these Christian houses of worship began or broadened more than three of their outreach activities in response to the pandemic.
The Hartford Institute's report is the second installment in a five-year project that began earlier this year called “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations,” based on a collaboration among 13 denominations from the Faith Communities Today cooperative partnership and institute staffers. If their findings are representative of the roughly 320,000 Christian congregations in the country, the institute said, the researchers estimate that nearly 175,000 churches launched or expanded ministries, funds and supplies in response to the pandemic over the past two years. Overall, almost three-quarters (74%) of churches have offered social support during the pandemic and close to two-thirds of congregations say they have been involved in new ministries.
According to the RNS report,
The new findings, a November survey drawn from 820 responses from representatives of 38 Christian denominational groups, showed significant changes in congregations’ attitudes toward change, particularly increasing diversity. Less than three-quarters (73%) agreed in 2020 that their congregations were willing to change to meet new challenges. That increased to 86% in November.
There also seemed to be greater interest in striving to be diverse, with 38% describing themselves as doing so in November compared with 28% in summer of 2021 and 26% before the pandemic and before the majority of the 2020 protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
But even as congregations considered new ways of operating, an increasing number are concerned about their future, with 23% saying they are worried about their ability to continue, compared to 16% in the summer.
This worry may well be the result of a grim reality: the institute’s researchers estimated that some 200,000 church members have lost their lives due to COVID-19. The percentage of churches reporting deaths within their membership increased from 17% in the summer to 28% in November, when the second survey was conducted. The average number of deaths among those reporting losses in their congregation was 2.3, up slightly from 2 in the summer.
In response, Allison Norton, co-investigator of the study, told RNS in an email, “This is a sobering picture; however, we would have expected an even greater loss, given the aging population of regular churchgoers.”
The project’s first report, based on responses from summer 2021, showed that about a third of congregations had increased requests for food. About a quarter received more requests for financial assistance during the pandemic. The November survey found that 22% said they had added or increased food distribution and 21% had enhanced or begun financial assistance for their community.
It is good to see churches functioning in society as they should.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
Bloomberg Law is reporting on a number of nonprofit Christian schools, churches, and seminaries that are launching legal challenges to the OSHA test-or-vaccinate rules. (To add nonprofit on top of nonprofit, at least a handful of the cases are being handled by the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom.)
Essentially, the ADF's suit (and, I imagine, many of the others) assert that the OSHA mandate overreaches and represents a "serious intrusion on religious autonomy and free exercise that cannot withstand scrutiny under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
I'm not a Religion Clauses scholar but I know enough to know that Religion Clause jurisprudence is kind of a mess. Enough of a mess that I wouldn't put money down on how these challenges turn out. Still, because the religious organizations challenging the test-or-vaccine mandate fit into the world of nonprofits, it's worth keeping an eye on how these challenges turn out.
Thursday, October 14, 2021
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
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
A couple weeks ago, a California federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by James Huntsman against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The suit got a reasonable amount of attention in my (Mormon, legal) circles, and seems to have gotten a fair amount of play in Utah, for two reasons. One is that it involved the Mormon church and a mall (more on that in a minute). The second was, it involved James Huntsman, brother of former (among other things) Utah governor Jon Huntsman and part of the prominent-within-the-Mormon-church Huntsman family.[fn1]
And what was his suit? In short, Huntsman was suing for the return of a couple decades' worth of tithing he had paid into the church.
As we all know, unless you make a restricted gift to a charity, the general rule is that once you make a charitable contribution, the money is out of your hands. If you don't like what the charity does with the money, you take your charitable deduction and you stop donating to that charity going forward. But you can't get your unrestricted donations back. (And in case it doesn't go without saying, tithing payments are unrestricted gifts.)
Thursday, September 9, 2021
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
Friday, July 30, 2021
White House Announces New Religions Affairs Leaders, Including First Islamic Religious Freedom Ambassador
The White House announced Friday (July 30) a slate of nominations and appointments for top religious affairs roles, including the first Muslim American nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
According to a report by the Religious News Service (RNS), President Biden will select Rashad Hussain as his nominee for that post, filling a State Department slot vacant since former Kansas governor and U.S. Senator Sam Brownback left at the close of the Trump administration. Hussain, who would need to be confirmed by the Senate, currently works as director for Partnerships and Global Engagement at the National Security Council.
Mr. Hussain previously served as White House counsel under President Barack Obama, as well as U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and U.S. special envoy for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, among other roles.
Commenting on the upcoming nomination, Saeed Khan, an expert on American Muslim communities at Wayne State University, stated: “Rashad’s appointment demonstrates not only the importance the Biden administration places on religious freedom, it also shows the importance of the Muslim world to the administration both in terms of combatting Islamophobia and also promoting religious freedom in Muslim majority countries. Rashad’s background will allow him to have a frank discussion with Muslim majority countries about religious freedom.”
Anila Ali, a co-founder of the American Muslims and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council Iftar who has worked with Hussain in the past, also celebrated his nomination. “As AMMWEC, and as a woman leader, I look forward to working with him because women play an important role in peace-making,” Ali said. “He has worked with Muslim communities during the Obama period and we hope his relevant experience is going to make him a voice for all of us.”
According to the RNS report, President Biden is also expected to nominate Deborah Lipstadt as the next U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Lipstadt is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a prominent Holocaust historian. She is the author of Antisemitism: Here and Now and is known for successfully defeating a libel suit brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving.
Commenting on the expected nomination of Prof. Lipstadt, Mark (Moishe) Bane, president of the Orthodox Union, had this to say: “She is a leader with great moral courage; her dedicated work, clear voice in fighting Holocaust denial and preserving the memory of the attempted destruction of the Jewish people make her an exemplary choice for this role.”
In addition, President Biden plans to appoint two new commissioners to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Khizr Khan and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Khan became famous in 2016 when he and his wife, Ghazala, spoke during the Democratic National Convention as “Gold Star” parents, discussing their son, Humayun, a U.S. Army captain who died in Iraq in 2004. Mr. Khan, the founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Project, runs his own law practice and has authored three books, including This is Our Constitution: Discover America with a Gold Star Father.
Kleinbaum, for her part, already served as a USCIRF commissioner in 2020 and leads the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, a community that centers LGBTQ people. A human rights advocate, she also sits on Mayor de Blasio’s Faith Based Advisory Council and serves on New York City’s Commission on Human Rights. In addition, she is a board member of the New York Jewish Agenda and the New Israel Fund.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University School of Law
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
The faculty of Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school associated with the Free Methodist Church, has taken a vote of no confidence in its board of trustees after members of the board declined to change its policy prohibiting the hiring of LGBTQ people.
The no-confidence vote, approved by 72% of the faculty Monday (April 20), was the latest in a series of escalating clashes between faculty, students and the school’s governing board. Faculty and students also want the school to drop its statement on human sexuality, which declares marriage between a man and a woman as the only permitted expression of human sexuality. A total of 213 out of 236 qualified faculty voted no confidence on an online form.
The board of trustees responded to the no-confidence vote Tuesday with a statement saying it would not change its employment hiring policy, which excludes LGBTQ people from full-time positions.
The statement read in part:
The board recognizes that fellow Christians and other community members disagree in good faith on issues relating to human sexuality, and that these convictions are deeply and sincerely held,” read the statement. “We pray that as we live within the tension of this issue, we can be in dialogue with the SPU community.
The board also indicated it was taking its stand because it wanted to continue to maintain its ties to the Free Methodist Church, a small denomination of about 70,000 in the United States and 1 million around the world. The Free Methodist Church has eight affiliated educational institutions including Azusa Pacific, Spring Arbor and Greenville universities.
Kevin Neuhouser, a professor of sociology at Seattle Pacific who is also the faculty advisor for HAVEN, the student club for LGBTQ students on campus, opined that “Right now the board is the last remaining group that has not yet come to recognize that LGBTQ individuals can be faithful Christians, and as faculty and staff they would play positive roles on our campus, if we can hire them.” According to Neuhousser, the school was engaged in a larger discussion of trying to discern what it means to follow Jesus. But, he asked, “Is it being faithful to include or exclude?”
Nationwide, a group of students and former students of Christian institutions are seeking an answer to that question. Last month, 33 LGBTQ students or former students at federally funded Christian colleges and universities filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education alleging widespread discrimination at 25 Christian colleges and universities.
We shall follow closely as this case winds its way through the court system.
Vaughn E. James, Professor of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law
Thursday, January 21, 2021
The Washington Post reports that Joseph Biden, the second-ever Roman Catholic U.S. president, was greeted on his Inauguration Day with contrasting messages from his church: A warm blessing from Pope Francis — and a statement by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops saying that Biden “will advance moral evils,” including contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage.
The statement by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez immediately set off a debate among U.S. bishops, who, like U.S. Catholics, are bitterly divided on the direction of their extensive denomination and its entanglement with partisan politics. Those divisions are coming to a head in the figure of Biden, who makes it clear with his weekly churchgoing, his frequent references to Catholic teachings and culture, and his use of Catholic symbols that he is indeed a part of the church.
The current dispute over how to contend with the new president features dueling comments from leading bishops.
On one hand, Archbishop Gomez stated:
In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, rejects this thinking:
Today, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Aside from the fact that there is seemingly no precedent for doing so, the statement, critical of President Biden came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released. The internal institutional failures involved must be addressed, and I look forward to contributing to all efforts to that end, so that, inspired by the Gospel, we can build up the unity of the Church, and together take up the work of healing our nation in this moment of crisis.
The Catholic Bishops have in the past taken a more positive and collaborative tone towards new presidents. For example, in 2016, the conference put out a statement congratulating Donald Trump, saying it “looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end.”
San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy said he was “echoing Pope Francis’ message to President Biden and calling for dialogue, not judgment; collaboration, not isolation; truth in charity, not harshness. … It is a pathway of reconciliation that places the healing of our society ahead of any specific policy issue, in the recognition that repairing the soul of our country is the pre-requisite for any sustainable effort to advance the common good. … Most importantly of all, Pope Francis’ message to President Biden fundamentally speaks to him in his humanity, a man of Catholic faith striving to serve his nation and his God.”
On Wednesday morning, President Biden received a message from the Pope: “Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding,” said Francis, who had called Biden on Nov. 12 to offer his congratulations and to discuss working together on issues including poverty, climate change and integrating immigrants and refugees.
Thursday morning, the USCCB put out four statements — an unusually busy morning for the Conference — praising actions Biden took the day before, including lifting the Muslim ban, and fortifying the “Dreamers” program that allows young immigrants to stay in the U.S. for work and school.
Prof. Vaughn E. James, Texas Tech University