By Bob Allen
A Baptist group specializing in church/state issues says the threat of churches and other religious organizations losing their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage “have been highly exaggerated” in a two-page handout released in light of the landmark Supreme Court decision recognizing that gays have a constitutional right to wed.
“Churches have long followed their own rules for performing marriages without such threat,” the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said in a resource document titled The Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling: What you need to know now.
The BJC, a 79-year-old education and advocacy organization representing 15 national, state and regional Baptist bodies in the United States, says the high court’s 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states doesn’t change that.
Any threat to the tax-exempt status of religious entities, the BJC says, would require “over-expansion” of a 1983 Supreme Court ruling against Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, S.C., which lost its tax-exempt status over a policy prohibiting interracial dating and marriage.
In that decision, the Supreme Court agreed 8-1 with the IRS that to qualify for tax exemption as a “charitable” organization, an institution must provide a public benefit and not be contrary to public policy.
“We are bound to approach these questions with full awareness that determinations of public benefit and public policy are sensitive matters with serious implications for the institutions affected,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the majority. “A declaration that a given institution is not ‘charitable’ should be made only where there can be no doubt that the activity involved is contrary to a fundamental public policy. But there can no longer be any doubt that racial discrimination in education violates deeply and widely accepted views of elementary justice.”
The BJC said the ruling does not apply to churches and has not been applied beyond racial discrimination in education. “It is unlikely that the court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage will have any effect on the 501(c)(3) status of religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage,” the BJC said.
During oral arguments in April, Justice Samuel Alito asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli if the Bob Jones precedent would apply to a college or university that opposed same-sex marriage.
“I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrillie said. “I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.”
Chief Justice John Roberts remembered the exchange in a dissenting opinion to the marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. “There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this court,” Roberts predicted. “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”
Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, told the New York Times that Verrilli’s response to Justice Alito was ill-considered.
Laycock, recognized as one of the nation’s leading authorities on religious liberty law, said church leaders are worried about jeopardizing their tax-exempt status because “there is a certain obvious logic” to Alito’s question. But he termed it “unimaginable” that any administration of either party would anytime soon go after the tax exemption of a religious institution over its views on homosexuality.
“When gay rights looks like race does today, where you have a handful of crackpots still resisting,” he said, “you might see an administration picking a fight.”