“Churches could lose their tax-exemption status.”

It seems like every time I watch TV there’s an anti-Prop 8 commercial on. (For those of you outside California, Proposition 8 is a voter initiative to amend the state constitution making same sex marriage illegal. This is in response to the recent state Supreme Court decision saying that the California constitution guarantees equal rights to same sex couples.)

Here is a link to the video. (I couldn’t get it to embed in this post.) The ad is a point by point response to an earlier commercial for Yes on Prop 8 (embedded below):

Now, one claim from this ad sticks out to me: “Churches could lose their tax-exemption status.” The “No On Prop 8” people ridicule this claim because the Supreme Court decision explicitly states that religions will not be affected. But I actually think that, while they are usually paranoid, the religious right is correct in their fears about this proposition. Why wouldn’t the same sort of reasoning apply in the same sex marriage case that applied in the interracial marriage case when Bob Jones University lost their tax exempt status for their racial discriminatory policies?

I actually don’t know what I think about this issue. I totally agree that Bob Jones’s policies were evil. And I agree that the same-sex marriage issue is parallel. But I also think it was part of Bob Jones’s religious freedom to keep the races segregated according to their (evil) fundamentalist doctrines. Maybe no churches should be tax exempt. But it seems wrong to dole out tax exemption in such a way that it pressures churches to violate their own religious teachings.

This issue reminds me of the issue of polygamy. Sometimes opponents of gay marriage argue that if we allow same sex couples to marry, there will be no stopping the slide down the slippery slope to allowing group marriage. Again, I think this is a place where the religious right is absolutely correct. But again, I’m not sure that it would be such bad thing to allow polygamous marriage. It was evil of the U.S. government to persecute the Mormon church for their marriage practices — and it was even more ridiculous for the Mormons to change their doctrines in order to gain public acceptability. If the Mormon religion teaches polygamy, then it is their First Amendment right to practice polygamy.

For more reflection on polygamy, check out HBO’s series Big Love, starring Bill Paxton as a man married to three wives. The show is a fascinating look at a variety of viewpoints on polygamy. It does not shy away from the dark side of polygamy as it is practiced in the fundamentalist Mormon “compounds” (forced marriage, pedophilia, incest, etc., not to mention repressive patriarchy), but the central characters’ suburban polygamous family is surprisingly healthy. The show seems to be arguing that polygamy is not necessarily evil: if we brought polygamy out of the shadows of criminalization it could be made to work.

And the show’s fundamentalist Mormon patriarch gives the best argument against Prop 8 I’ve heard: If we define marriage as the union between one man and one woman, then we criminalize many of our Biblical forefathers such as Abraham, Jacob, David, etc. In other words, the “traditional” definition of marriage does not seem to be limited to heterosexual monogamy.

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3 thoughts on ““Churches could lose their tax-exemption status.”

  1. i’m equally undecided on prop 8 but i think the argument against it for fear of criminalizing the patriarchs is pretty flimsy, not to mention that it’s an odd bit of anachronism. there are any number of existing statutes, both criminal and civil-some big, most small, that could be used to criminalize a wide variety of the behavior of our forbearers. as a society we’ve judged them necessary to maintain some level of “civility” – whether prop 8 meets that criteria I don’t know.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. I agree that “as a society we’ve judged” our ancestors, but EVANGELICALS have not. The Evangelical doctrine on homosexuality explicitly denies that there is any relevant difference between our culture and the culture in Biblical times. For the Evangelical, we are forever bound by the moral standards of the ancient Hebrews. It is this belief that, when combined with the Evangelical commitment to “the traditional definition of marriage”, implies that we ought to accept polygamy as at least acceptable if not the norm. Those who reject the premises of the Evangelical argument are free to condemn both the behavior of the patriarchs and modern polygamy. But most supporters of Prop 8 are Evangelical, and that move is not available to them.

  3. Also, to be clear, I’m not “undecided on Prop 8”. I totally support same-sex marriage. What I am unsure about is whether churches who reject same-sex marriage (or practice other forms of discrimination) should lose their tax exempt status.

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