New York Times Series Chronicles Massive Breaks For Religion

Religious Right leaders constantly complain that religion in America is under attack or even subjected to persecution, thanks to a rigorous application of the separation of church and state.

A series of articles that ran recently in The New York Times explodes that claim. The stories detail extensive benefits doled out to religious groups by federal, state and local governments, pointing out that religious organizations are routinely ex­empted from licensing requirements, labor laws and government oversight to pro­tect the public interest. In addition, they receive generous tax breaks for clergy housing and church-run projects that may only be tangentially related to religion.

The stories, written by reporter Diana B. Henriques, began running Oct. 8. The first story, headlined “Religion Trumps Reg­ulation As Legal Exemptions Grow,” de­tailed the various exemptions to secular laws carved out for religious organizations.

The story began by contrasting two child-care centers in Alabama. One, part of a chain of commercial, for-profit centers, is subjected to extensive state regulation covering everything from food preparation and staff training to the types of safety locks used. The other center, appended to a church in Montgomery, is free from all of these regulations.

The commercial center must be prepared to deal with unannounced visits by state inspectors at any time. The church-run center is exempt from the program. Employees at the for-profit center can sue if their rights are violated. Workers at the church center lack these protections.

As The Times noted, “An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration laws to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.”

Religious organizations got many of these breaks by lobbying for them, and The Times quoted experts who pointed out that in most cases, Congress and state lawmakers were only too happy to acquiesce to the demands of lobbyists representing religious interests.

The benefits, breaks and exemptions have become so extensive that one analyst said they threaten the separation of church and state.

“Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today’s public opinion makers were in school,” said John Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University Law School. “But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land.”

Another story in the series looked at the exemptions from employment laws that are given to religious groups. It centered on the case of Mary Rosati, a woman training to be a nun who was diagnosed with breast cancer. When church officials found out, they expelled her from the convent, causing her to lose her housing and health insurance.

Had Rosati worked for a secular corporation, she would have been able to sue under the Americans with Disabil­ities Act and probably would have won easily in court. But when she sued the Catholic Church, her case was dismis­sed by a federal judge. The judge ruled that the church’s decision was “ecclesiastical” and thus “beyond the reach of the court.”

Other stories in the series dealt with housing exemptions and other forms of tax breaks extended to religious organizations, including the exemption for housing that clergy receive and breaks given to religious orders to run ostensibly secular businesses such as retirement communities and fitness centers.

Observed The Times, “There are no national figures on how much money these tax breaks save religious organizations and on how much extra cost is shifted to other citizens. But a typical state, Colorado, reported that religious real estate valued at more than $1.1 billion was exempt from local property taxes there last year. Nationally, tax-exempt financing for religious organizations totaled at least $20 billion during the decade that ended last year.”

At the conclusion of the series, The Times editorialized, “The series showed that the wall between church and state is being replaced by a platform that raises religious organizations to a higher legal plane than their secular counterparts.”

Continued The Times, “Religious institutions should be protected from excessive intrusion by government. Judges should not tell churches who they have to hire as ministers, or meddle in doctrinal disputes. But under pressure from politically influential religious groups, Congress, the White House, and federal and state courts have expanded this principle beyond all reason. It is increasingly being applied to people, buildings and programs only tangentially related to religion.”

Two months after the series ran, Chris­tianity Today commented on it in an editorial. Although the magazine disagreed with some aspects of The Times’ reporting, its editors conceded that some of the breaks given to religion may go too far.

“Churches, mosques, synagogues, and all charitable organizations should be accountable to independent directors, ecclesial and (when appropriate) civil courts, and the public. Faith-based wrongdoing should be granted no safe harbor,” observed the evangelical publication.

It added, “In this respect, the practices of some churches and ministries deserve reexamination. Increasingly, churches and nonprofits are offering services that compete with for-profit bus­inesses: retirement homes, fitness centers, theme parks, and child care, to name a few examples. In such cases, Christian nonprofits should make sure that the services they provide relate to their theology and mission – otherwise they’ll be rightly perceived as exploiting tax law for their own benefit. That’s dishonest, and it tarnishes the name of Christ. For all the breadth of interpretation the First Amend­­ment allows, it wasn’t intended to give First Church Fitness Cen­ter a leg up on Bally’s.”