• Christmas Busybodies

    This is another post from Bert Bigelow. Cheers!

    Busybody: noun;  a person who mixes into other people’s affairs; meddler; gossip

    Every year at this time, as predictable as snow in Saskatchewan or icicles in Idaho, it happens.  The bleating about the “oppression” of Christians starts anew.  Usually, it is triggered by some evangelist group that wants to place a nativity crèche on a courthouse lawn or a public park.

    When non-Christian groups object, the cries of anguish begin.

    A department store hangs a sign that says HAPPY HOLIDAYS or SEASONS GREETINGS instead of MERRY CHRISTMAS.

    THEY ARE TAKING CHRIST OUT OF CHRISTMAS!

    CHRISTIANS ARE OPPRESSED BY THE SECULAR AND ATHEIST LEFT WING!

    Let’s take these in order.  First nobody can take the religious significance out of Christmas for a Christian.  The meaning of Christmas is whatever each individual decides that it is.  To a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or an atheist, Christmas does not have the same significance that it does to a Christian.  Christmas has become a secular, as well as religious, holiday…a time when families gather, exchange presents and share in a holiday feast.  Non-Christians probably don’t think much about the religious aspects of Christmas.  What’s wrong with that?  It doesn’t prevent devout Christians from celebrating its religious significance.

    This is similar to the claim that same-sex marriage “threatens” the institution of marriage.  The “sacred union” that religious people forge in a church has exactly the significance they choose to place on it.  Nobody can change that except the partners in the marriage.  How other people marry is, quite simply, none of their business.

    Now, let’s address the “oppression” question.  Surveys have shown that Christians make up somewhere between 70% and 85% of the US population.  Of course, Christians come in many flavors.  Many of them don’t go to church regularly, and religious thought doesn’t play a major role in their lives, but they say they are Christians, and I see no reason to doubt them.  Now, that is a substantial majority of the electorate, and so I find it laughable that the miniscule minority of non-Christians are “oppressing” that vast majority.  I would venture that many non-Christians living in this country feel oppressed by the constant pressure from Christian religious organizations who persistently push their Bible-based ideas into the public sphere.

    One of the main purposes of the Constitution is to protect minorities from oppression by the majority.  Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the “tyranny of the majority” is a real danger in “illiberal” democracies.

    The founders of our nation saw that danger, and built into the Constitution some safeguards to protect minorities from persecution by the majority.  They realized that religion should never dominate government.  That is not to say that individuals in positions of power cannot let their religious beliefs influence their decisions.  Such a prohibition would be unenforceable anyway.  Instead, the founders said that government should never officially endorse religion.  Some people have interpreted this to mean that government should not endorse any specific religion.  They claim that endorsement of religion in general…with nondenominational prayers for instance…is permitted.  A simple reading of Article 1 makes it clear that this is not the case:

     “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

    The prohibition is against religion in general, and it is unequivocal.

    Others have claimed that this refers only to the federal government, and that state and local governments are free to endorse religion.  Or that it only prohibits the Congress from establishing a national church.  But the courts have generally adopted a literal interpretation…until recently.

    Why do some Christians feel the need to erect Christian displays in public places?  The reason often given is that it “reaffirms the fact that we live in a Christian nation.”  The quote from Article 1 above makes it clear that we most assuredly do not live in a Christian nation.  We live in a secular democratic republic in which a majority of the citizens claim to be Christians.

    Is it an attempt to demonstrate their personal devotion?  Why not erect the display in their own back yard or in the churchyard?  Would it not be seen and appreciated by God there?  There must be another reason, and that reason seems obvious to me.

    It’s advertising.  Like any business, churches have a product to sell.  The Bible tells them to spread the word of the gospel.

    Mark 16:15 (King James Version):  “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”

    So they want the displays to be in public places where they will be seen by the most people.  But more importantly, their presence in a courthouse or other government facility connotes an implicit endorsement of the religion they represent…and, of course, that is exactly what the writers of the Constitution were trying to prevent.

    A long string of court decisions have affirmed and reaffirmed the prohibition against such displays in general, but recent rulings of an increasingly right-wing and overwhelmingly Catholic Supreme Court have diluted the decisions of earlier courts.

    It has occurred to me that one way to solve the problem is to allow anybody and everybody to advertise their products and services in government buildings.

    Just imagine what courthouse walls would look like:

     ad montage

    The halls of legislatures and city councils, where “In God We Trust” is often displayed would look like this:

     trust montage

    But then, every business would claim a right to advertising space and the walls of public buildings would quickly fill up.  Who would decide which business gets the space?

    There is only one answer for a capitalist society.  The space should be rented to the highest bidder.  The rental income could help alleviate the chronic deficits that government at all levels is suffering.

    But wait, there is still a problem.  Churches have a huge advantage in competing with businesses.  They don’t pay taxes.  Taxes from businesses helped to build those courthouses and council chambers, and provide the funds to operate them and pay the government officials who work there.  Is it fair to make them compete with tax-exempt churches in a bidding auction for advertising space?

    That opens a whole new can of worms:  Why are churches tax-exempt?  Why doesn’t a tax exemption for a church violate the Constitution?  Doesn’t that tax exemption constitute an endorsement of religion?  Isn’t a law that gives churches tax exemptions a law “respecting the establishment of religion?”

    Even though a majority of American voters approve of laws that give tax exemptions to churches, doesn’t that constitute tyrannical rule by the majority that de Tocqueville warned us about?  Isn’t that exactly what the Constitution was designed to prevent?

    Category: AtheismFeaturedReligion and SocietySecularismUncategorized

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    Article by: Bert Bigelow

    • epicurus

      Holy Cow, Saskatchewan mentioned in a skeptic blog! Don’t see that everyday.

    • Otto Greif

      Churches are not the only non-profit organizations that get tax exemptions.

      • Bert Bigelow

        Correct, Otto, but churches spend their most of their money on sectarian activities like church services, proselytizing, overseas missions, Bible school, summer Bible camps, etc. Unlike secular charities, churches do not even have to publicly disclose how they spend their money.
        The tax exemptions they get, and the tax deductions their donors get, reduce government tax revenue. A tax deduction for ME is a tax on YOU. In effect, all taxpayers are paying for part of those church activities. I think that is wrong.
        I wrote a piece about tax exemptions for churches titled “Should Churches Be Tax-Exempt?
        Here is the link. http://bigelowbert.com/?p=621

        • Otto Greif

          Churches are shielded from the IRS to protect their First Amendment rights. If you think there should be no tax deductions why single out churches? It should be obvious that giving churches of all religions a tax exempt status that non-religious non-profit organizations also receive does not establish a religion.

          • D Rieder

            How would reporting what they spend on charity vs entertainment (services where the congregation is entertained) be threatening their first amendment rights?

            • Otto Greif

              How is what churches spend on entertainment your concern?

            • Bert Bigelow

              The point that D Rieder is making is that charitable organizations are supposed to do charitable work. A lot of what churches do has nothing to do with charities…e.g., helping the poor. It is activity that benefits only their congregation, and it should not be tax-exempt, any more than a private social club should be tax-exempt.

            • Otto Greif

              The World Wildlife Fund and NPR do nothing for the poor, for some reason you never hear leftists complaining about their tax exemptions.

            • If you want a really good exposition of churches and tax, see this brilliant RD episode:

              http://freethoughtblogs.com/reasonabledoubts/2012/07/07/episode-104-religious-experience-with-guest-tanya-luhrmann/

            • D Rieder

              It’s not, but it shouldn’t be tax deductible, should it?

            • Otto Greif

              Things like music and choirs have long been part of religious exercise.

          • Bert Bigelow

            Secular non-profits are required to report how their money is spent, and their tax-exempt status can be revoked if the IRS determines that the money is not being spent on charitable activities. Churches have no such restriction. Here are the words from the IRS web site:

            “The organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, and no part of a section 501(c)(3) organization’s net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.”

            Money that is spent to build and maintain churches, hold services, pay pastors/priests, etc. does not meet this test. The only people who benefit from these sectarian activities are church members.

            • Otto Greif

              That’s a comical interpretation of the law.

            • Bert Bigelow

              How so? Why do you think churches deserve special treatment, different from secular non-profits?

            • Otto Greif

              Churches get extra shielding from the government because of the First Amendment.

        • D Rieder

          Churches should only be able to exempt that which they actually spend on charitable causes. But the money they spend on entertainment, facility maintenance and outreach, missions (advertisement), for example, should be taxed.

          • Otto Greif

            There are nonprofits that do nothing but entertainment.

            • Bert Bigelow

              According to the IRS rules for 501(c)(3) organizations, I do not think that is true. Could you give us some examples?

            • Otto Greif

              Community theaters, film festivals, symphony orchestras, etc.

            • D Rieder

              The fine arts. Do you think they should be tax deductible?

            • Otto Greif

              Sure, why not.

            • Bert Bigelow

              From a charity advisory web site: “501(c)(3) is a special tax status under federal law, generally available to organizations formed and operated for a charitable, educational, scientific or religious purpose, and promotion of the arts is recognized as a valid educational purpose.”
              Education may be entertaining, but it is not “nothing but entertainment” as you suggest.
              Personally, I think most if not all tax exemptions should be eliminated,. both secular and religious. It is government spending that the government cannot control. It’s a “blind subsidy.”
              As Ben Franklin said of churches, if what they do is worthwhile, then they should be able to attract the donations the needs to operate without government help. If they cannot, why should government subsidize them? The same applies to secular charities.

            • Otto Greif

              Not taxing something isn’t spending.

            • D Rieder

              It seems to me the question shouldn’t be “why not make (you name it) tax deductible”?, but “why make (you name it) tax deductible?” Do you think there are good reasons to make the cost of religion in general tax deductible? I can’t think of many EXCEPT for when religious organization contributes to a charitable cause (those in need). In which case, that part of the money the church manages should be tax deductible…not all they take in. But the money they use to manage and maintain the organization and property should be considered taxable just like any other business.

              Bert quotes the law as stating some endeavors which should be granted special tax status…one includes religion. This seems in direct conflict with the idea of not the government not establishing religion. Note it just says religion, not a religion. Why should religion, for example, be favored and pampered at the expense of tax payers? From the standpoint of the services and special events, religion is nothing by entertainment.

            • Otto Greif

              Not taxing isn’t establishment, and it’s not a cost. Churches aren’t “just like” a business, that’s a weird analogy. Do you wish to end tax exemptions for all nonprofits, or solely churches?

            • Bert Bigelow

              What’s the difference between government spending money on something and not getting the revenue to spend? Simple arithmetic says the result is the same. But more importantly, it forces government to raise taxes on everyone else. I have said this several times now, and you have not responded. I will say it once more. A tax deduction for ME is a tax on YOU. I am beginning to think you did not even read the article.
              Churches ARE businesses. They have a product to sell, they have income and expenses. If the managers don’t run it as a business, the church will fail. I know churches that have gone out of business, just closed their doors. Didn’t have enough customers.

            • Otto Greif

              Not taxing something isn’t a cost, unless you believe 100% of wealth belongs to the government, maybe you do. If you really think not paying taxes is a cost you should favor taxing the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes. Churches don’t engage in commerce and they don’t profit by what they do.

            • Bert Bigelow

              You keep repeating the same thing over and over. I doubt that you are even reading anything in the responses to your claims, and you still have not responded to: A tax deduction for ME…or a tax exemption for a charity…secular or religious…is a tax on YOU.
              I will try once more: Government needs a certain amount of money to function. Every tax deduction or exemption they grant causes taxes on everyone else to increase. It’s a zero sum game. Apparently you think government can magically operate on less tax revenue when they grant a church a tax exemption..
              That’s like believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus…or the Bible.

            • Geoff Benson

              Bert, for the record I agree with you completely. Taxes have to be raised and those who are exempted are a burden on those who aren’t. And I see no reason to exempt religion from taxation. If it runs charitable arms then by all means allow them to offset that against their income, but take away this general exemption.

            • Bert Bigelow

              Right, Geoff. I would go further and say that most if not all charities, secular and religious, should lose their tax exemption. If that happened, tax rates could be reduced substantially. If people were unwilling to contribute to them without a tax break, then maybe they don’t deserve any contributions. But I think most people would. Hey, they will have more disposable income with the lower tax rates!
              But I realize I am tilting at windmills…
              By the way…I give modest amounts to several charities…and my tax situation is such that I cannot even itemize deductions…I take the Standard Deduction.

            • Otto Greif

              Government could reduce expenditures. If that’s what you believe, why focus on churches, and not nonprofits in general, as well as the tax deduction for charitable giving, or the wasteful, regressive, and market distorting tax break for employer provided insurance?

            • Bert Bigelow

              Whether government could reduce expenditures or not is irrelevant to this discussion. You say a tax exemption is not a cost (to government).
              Let’s pursue that. Your church is exempted from property taxes.
              Let’s say tomorrow, state and local government revoked your church’s property taxes exemption. So your church pays its property tax…and then the government gives your church a subsidy exactly equal to the amount of tax. That subsidy would have to be authorized by government…legislature, council chamber, etc. It would be debated and when it was authorized, it would be an expenditure by government. But the net effect would be exactly the same as the tax exemption. That’s why I say a tax exemption is a government expenditure.

            • D Rieder

              What would we think if they only allowed, say, Christian churches to be tax exempt and only allowed contributors to that church to deduct their donations? Or even the donations of one just one denomination?

            • Bert Bigelow

              That would be unconstitutional because it is government “establishment” of a specific religion. But take it one step further. If ALL churches are tax-exempt, isn’t that discriminatory toward people who are not members of churches? Doesn’t it constitute “establishment” of religion in general?

            • Otto Greif

              Pointing to a long tradition isn’t a “debating trick”, it supports the contention there is nothing unconstitutional about it.

            • Bert Bigelow

              No, it means that the political will to challenge it is in the minority. We had a long tradition of slavery too.

            • Otto Greif

              Slavery was constitutional.

            • Bert Bigelow

              That was the conventional thinking at the time, but actually, the Constitution did not specifically legalize slavery. In 1845, a lawyer named Lysander Spooner wrote a book titled “The Unconstitutionality of Slavery.” Of course, there was no political will to support his point of view at that time.

            • Otto Greif

              The Constitution didn’t specifically prohibit slavery, which is why it was constitutional.

            • Bert Bigelow

              The Fifth Amendment specifically says the “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
              This was circumvented by defining slaves as “property.”