Tuesday, December 19, 2023

New York AG Issues New & Updated Guidance for Religious Corporations & Their Members

Download (15)From a recent email sent by the Office of the New York State Attorney General:

The Attorney General’s Charities Bureaus is pleased to announce the publication of new and up-dated guidance for Religious Corporations and their members.

* * *

Religious Corporations: Sales and Other Disposition of Assets – Up-dated guidance for religious corporations, including a check list of requirements for petitions to the Attorney General or the Court for approval of sales, clarification of which denominations must seek approval of the Attorney General and/or the Court, detailed guidance on preparation for a sale, explanation of statutory requirements and the role of the Attorney General, sample forms for documents required by the Attorney General and/or the Court.

Guidance for Congregants Whose Houses of Worship are or May be Offered for Sale or Lease – NEW guidance for members of religious congregations, many of whom have the right to vote on whether property of their congregations should be sold, including questions to ask to have an understanding of the procedures and time required to sell the property and the financial and other impact of the sale on the congregation.

Lloyd Mayer

December 19, 2023 in Religion, State – Executive | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 6, 2023

Proposed Class Action for Solicitation Fraud Filed Against LDS Church

Download (12)We previously reported about the August 2023 Ninth Circuit decision reinstating John Huntsman's claim against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (more on that decision here) and the March 2023 survival in the face of a motion to to dismiss of a civil RICO claim against the LDS Church by another disgruntled donor. Now a different set of unhappy donors have filed a proposed class action against the LDS Church.

The thrust of their complaint is that the Church told them that their donations would be used immediately for charitable purposes, including "humanitarian relief," but instead some or all of their donations became part of a now multi-billion dollar endowment. The specific claims filed in the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City include breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and unjust enrichment. The docket is available on Pacer, but I have not been able to find a copy of the actual complaint that is not behind a paywall. 

Coverage: AP; Law360 (subscription required); NY Post.

November 6, 2023 in Federal – Judicial, In the News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 16, 2023

Canopy Forum: RFRA at 30

On Thursday at 10:30 am Central, the Canopy Forum is hosting a webinar entitled "The Religious Freedom Restoration Act at 30." While it is not specifically geared toward answering nonprofit or tax-exempt organization questions, religious organizations are a huge, and important, sector of the nonprofit world, attracting more than 25% of charitable donations in 2021. So even if the discussion of RFRA doesn't directly address questions of nonprofit law, it's an important law dealing with an important corner of the nonprofit world. (Full disclosure: I'll be talking about RFRA and religious tax protestors.) An abstract for the webinar:

Thirty years ago this November, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA was birthed from a popular bipartisan effort in Congress to respond to Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld as constitutional under the Free Exercise Clause facially neutral and generally applicable laws. Soon after its enactment, RFRA’s scope came under dispute. Today, the contours of the federal statute—and its state law progeny—continue to be a source of litigation and scholarly discussion. This one-day symposium will look back at RFRA’s origins and evolution and look forward to its new frontiers.

If you're interested, you can register here.

Samuel D. Brunson

October 16, 2023 in Conferences, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Fraudulent Inducement of Donations?

A couple years ago, James Huntsman, son of Jon Huntsman Jr. (the former governor of Utah and former presidential candidate, among other things) sued the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon church). He asserted that he had tithed in reliance on church statements that the LDS church did not use tithing money for commercial endeavors, that the church did use tithing money for commercial endeavors, and that therefore he was entitled to have his donations returned, as well as to punitive and exemplary damages. About two years ago, the district court granted the LDS church's motion for summary judgment.

Then, earlier this month, the 9th Circuit reversed. It found that it was possible that a jury could find that "tithing" included earning on invested tithing, and therefore summary judgment was inappropriate in this case. The court remanded it to the district court, though it has extended the deadline for the church to petition for en banc review. 

I wrote about the case at a Mormon-themed blog here. That provides most of the context surrounding this suit. But the case raises a couple interesting broader questions, including nonprofit questions. One is, how often does a disaffected donor allege fraud to try to get their donation returned? (To be clear, at best this case is just barely on the right side of frivolous; as a substantive matter, I don't think Huntsman can win.) Has it happened in the past? Will it be a new trend in the new world of performative litigation? Do nonprofits need to be meticulously clear about what they say they'll do with their money?

Samuel D. Brunson

August 23, 2023 in Current Affairs, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

State Appellate Court Reinstates in Part Methodist Conference's Claims Against SMU

Logobluetype2xOne of the consequences of theological divisions within denominations over hot button issues such as same sex marriage, female pastors, and other doctrinal disputes is an increasing body of case law relating to control of church property and institutions. Cases involving Episcopal churches have been particularly prominent, as noted by the Pew Research Center more than 10 years ago and illustrated by a 2021 set of certiorari denials by the U.S. Supreme Court as mentioned at the end of this SCOTUSblog post.

One of the ongoing such disputes is between the South Central Jurisdiction Conference of the United Methodist Church and Southern Methodist University (SMU). SMU's Board of Trustees voted 34-1 in 2019 to remove all references to the Conference from its Articles of Incorporation, including removing the Conference's right of approval over amendments to SMU's articles of incorporation and its authority to elect members of the Board. The Conference promptly filed a lawsuit in Texas state court challenging the amendments, but SMU prevailed at the trial court level against all of the Conference's claims through a combination of dismissals and summary judgment.

Now the Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District has weighed in, reinstating many of the the Conference's claims and directing that they be tried. Here is the court's conclusion:

We conclude that the Conference, as SMU's controlling parental entity, had standing to challenge the 2019 Amendments under the 1996 Articles, which are lawful provisions pursuant to [Texas Business Organizations Code (TBOC)] § 22.207. We further conclude the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on the Conference's TBOC § 4.007 claim [relating to allegedly filing a materially false certificate of amendment] and in dismissing the Conference's claims for breach of contract and declaratory-judgment claims (a), (b), (c), and (f).

We partially sustain the Conference's first and third issues and conclude the trial court erred in dismissing the Conference's claim for breach of contract and for declaratory judgment asserted in paragraph 64, subparagraphs (a), (b), (c), and (f) of the Conference's second amended petition. We also sustain the Conference's sixth issue and conclude the trial court erred in granting summary judgment against the Conference on its claim under § 4.007 of the TBOC. In all other respects, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

We remand this cause to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is worth noting that the appellate court found the dispute did not turn on a dispute over church doctrine, but instead over the proper application of relevant corporate documents, and so was proper for the court to resolve.

Lloyd Mayer

August 2, 2023 in Religion, State – 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).

Continue reading

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)

Friday, February 10, 2023

$100 Billion (Redux)

7186889084_58969a0453_cSo Wednesday, David Nielson, the whistleblower who sent a complaint to the IRS about the Mormon church's tax-exempt investment arm a handful of years ago, sent a revised and significantly polished update to the Senate Finance Committee.

For context: Ensign Peak Advisors is an investment company. Its sole (as far as I can tell) client: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (that is, the Mormon church). It manages something in the range of $100 billion of the church's assets. And also, Ensign Peak Advisors is a tax-exempt organization.

Mr. Nielson has argued for a variety of reasons that it should not be exempt (because, among other things, it fails the organizatonal and operational tests (and in this round he added a private inurement claim).

Reading through this round, I think I understand his assertions. And I think they boil down to his misunderstanding certain transactions and terms of art. But I gave a more fulsome analysis of my thoughts on Twitter.

(He also makes some securities law claims, claims that I'm not qualified to comment on and which, honestly, also probably depend intimately on the underlying facts.)

Samuel D. Brunson

Photo by Ken Lund. CC BY-SA 2.0

February 10, 2023 in Current Affairs, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Churches & Tax Exemption: Growing Less Settled?

DownloadSince 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: 

  • 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."

Lloyd Mayer

December 13, 2022 in In the News, Publications – Articles, Religion | 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)

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)

Monday, August 8, 2022

Philanthropy News Digest: University of Haifa Receives $121.5 Million for Scholarship Funds

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

August 8, 2022 in Current Affairs, In the News, International, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 18, 2022

Tax Exemption and Abortion

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 

July 18, 2022 in Current Affairs, In the News, Other, Religion | 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

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

DownloadIt 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.

Lloyd Mayer

April 15, 2022 in Federal – Executive, Federal – Judicial, In the News, Religion, State – Executive, State – Judicial | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

IRS on Crowdfunding, Suspension of Delinquent Notices, Private Foundation Info, and Religious and Apostolic Associations

IRS-SymbolEven with the much-reported backlog at the IRS, the Service is still issuing informal guidance and other information in a variety of areas. Notable recent pronouncements include:

  • 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.

Lloyd Mayer

April 13, 2022 in Federal – Executive, Religion | 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)