The idea of the separation between church and state lies at the very heart of American values. Originally envisioned as a way to protect the church from government intrusion (thus allowing for a de facto federal-sanctioning of a particular religion), modern challenges to Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” has come from the other direction—a desire to reduce the influence the church has on the government. One of the most recent of these challenges has come in the form of a lawsuit from the American Atheists that seeks to force the IRS to reform their policy with regard to awarding churches tax exempt status.
According to Newsweek, these automatic federal tax exemptions may be costing American taxpayers quite a bit of money—from $16.75 billion to $71 billion in revenue. To be clear: the lawsuit is not about removing the tax-exempt status for churches. Instead, the suit seeks to reform the policy that such status is automatically granted to churches, whereas secular non-profit charities have to go through a lengthy process to both apply and maintain the same status. If churches had to file this paperwork— such as, IRS Form 990, an annual report which allows the IRS to monitor for financial wrongdoing—American Atheists argue that it would level the playing field.
In a written debate in The Los Angeles Times about this issue, between civil liberty attorneys Barry Lynn and Erik Stanley, the heart of the issue is the founders’ intent to protect religious organizations from government interference. Stanley—who writes against the change—says that religious exemptions exist “under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion than to tax it.” Lynn, a reverend writing in favor of the reform, says that it is the only way to stop some churches from abusing the law.
The very idea of separation of church and state—two groups who had been inexorably linked in many countries throughout history—came from Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. Locke argued that because government lacked the moral authority that churches have. Yet, if we were to honestly examine modern-day religious institutions, it seems that moral authority is hard to come by. The problem of corruption—usually intersecting church money with explicitly political endeavors—has been documented across myriad denominations and faiths. The question remains then if simply treating churches like every other non-profit amounts to persecution or equal treatment under the law.