Dangerous precedent: Religious exemption from federal law

by A.F. Alexander

This article examines the legal ramifications and significance of the issues surrounding the birth control battle between Federal law and the Catholic Church et al objections.  It is not as simple as first presented and will certainly have long-lasting repercussions.

What is a precedent and how important is it?
A precedent is a court case’s legal decision that may be used as a standard in subsequent similar cases. Roe vs. Wade set a legal precedent and because of that court decision abortion became legal. Prior court case decisions are cited often in legal cases to demonstrate that their side is already on established ground and thus should win.

contraception-mandateThe approaching birth control-insurance coverage showdown will set a precedent that could dramatically shape this country going forward. But, the legal precedent that may be set has some serious ramifications that have gone largely unconsidered. We shall explore a few of those issues in this article.

Religious Exemption from law as a precedent
The Catholic Church (at last count there were well over forty separate legal actions) has filed legal responses to the requirement for insurance companies to cover the cost of birth control pills. This is the most common form of contraception and impacts all employees of Catholic hospitals and other Catholic enterprises or charities, whether the women are Catholic or not. The Catholic Church, is aggressively pushing for a religious exemption from this federal law that impacts a third party, insurance companies, to cover what is considered common preventative care.

Exempt from other laws
The first precedent, should they get such a religious exemption, is that religious organizations or companies can be exempted from other federal level laws. This is a huge strike against the Republic ideal where all citizens, companies, and organizations are under the same laws. The Catholic Church considering itself above the law of the land is not a new idea. The Catholic Church in Vatican City is actually, and technically, its own country (not just part of Rome or Italy) with its own laws and separate law enforcement. The Catholic Church expecting special treatment may be in keeping with its view of itself as outside any country’s laws, but that doesn’t excuse it in America where we expect all to follow the laws of the land. The Catholic church has already inspired other employers, who aren’t specifically religious in nature, to insist on special exemptions from the same federal law impacting a third party.

Creates a special class
In addition to this blow against this country’s core democratic republic structure, such a religious exemption to federal law will create a special class of organizations that get special treatment, which is counter to the First Amendment. Will your average charity get such exemptions from federal laws if they don’t agree with a law? Church and religious organizations get special tax-free status. Thus, each individual can give money where they choose, rather than the government showing favor, to any particular religion or sect over another. This goes even further by making them so special they choose what laws they will or will not accept.

IRS tax restrictions and the Johnson Amendment
chchstConsider just the core concept of receiving an exemption from laws because of your religious beliefs and how, beyond birth control, far reaching the ripples could be of such a landmark decision. Consider the old case of Bob Jones University that refused admittance to black student applicants until 1975, and afterward only accepted those applicants who were married to a black spouse. They did this according to their religious beliefs against interracial marriage. The IRS revoked their tax-exempt status and Bob Jones fought back. The case, titled Bob Jones University versus United States, held that the IRS was within its rights. This has festered a seething anger towards the federal government holding such power, tax-free status via federal law adherence, over any Christian institution. The IRS tax exemption codes will likely be the very next in line to be challenged if the precedent of religious exemption from a federal law is allowed. The court decision in Bob Jones University v. United States clearly applies to the same concept as seen in the following quote.

“… entitlement to tax exemption depends on meeting certain common-law standards of charity – namely that an institution seeking tax-exempt status must serve a public purpose and not be contrary to established public policy. Neither petitioner qualifies as a tax – exempt organization…[i]t would be wholly incompatible with the concepts underlying tax exemption to grant tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory private educational entities. Whatever may be the rationale for such private schools’ policies, racial discrimination in education is contrary to public policy. Racially discriminatory educational institutions cannot be viewed as conferring a public benefit within the above ‘charitable’ concept or within the congressional intent underlying 501(c)(3).” Findlaw.com

The racial discrimination exemplified by Bob Jones University that started their long legal battle will easily be challenged once again with the “religious exemption” excuse depending upon how this birth control coverage challenge is resolved.

Over the last several years, churches have been openly defiant of federal IRS laws that specifically draw the line at endorsing a specific candidate. On Pulpit Freedom Sundays, church leaders band together and become political candidate spokesmen. This year, several churches even video-taped their pulpit politicking in an open challenge to the government. The Pulpit Freedom Sunday website provides a history of the Johnson Amendment that passed Congress in 1954, which defined the political boundaries for tax-free charitable organizations. The organizers and participants of Pulpit Freedom Sunday along with other sympathetic organizations feel the tax code is used against them, rather than benefiting them with billions in tax free money. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a church–state separation watchdog group, filed a lawsuit against the IRS for not pursuing this blatant law breaking by approximately 1,500 churches this year and filed twenty-seven complaints regarding church politicking throughout 2012. The tax regulations and the Johnson Amendment will definitely be one of the first challenged if there is a precedent of churches being exempt from federal law based on their beliefs. Count on it.

A potential Mormon challenge
During the 2012 presidential campaign, the nation learned that some Mormon families moved to Mexico to escape the marriage laws that specify only one spouse in the United States. There are some who practice the Mormon faith who could easily challenge the anti-bigamy laws with a religious exemption precedent since multiple wives are part of their belief system. This situation could get particularly interesting because anti-bigamy was part of our English heritage, based on English common law. It was established because monogamy was the accepted Christian norm, despite Solomon and King David. So which belief system gets to have their way, or is it just whatever your church believes trumps the laws of the land and let anarchy reign? This is a legal challenge that could easily take advantage of a religious exemption to laws, claiming their church’s well-documented multiple wife belief-system should be exempt from the prevailing law of the land. You have to wonder if the Mormon Church is already planning their legal strategy if the Catholic Church’s present legal challenges should win.

Child brides and child abuse
Warren Jeffs, and the towns of Hilldale Utah and Colorado City Arizona provide another excellent example for this discussion. Warren Jeffs is the religious leader of these two towns. In a lawsuit filed in 2012 against the city leaders and law enforcement claim abuse of their powers for followed Jeffs’ orders above their sworn duties. What garnered Warren Jeffs, and consequently his two towns, was the 2008 raid of the Zion Ranch in Texas which took four hundred children into custody. It became the largest custody case on record in U.S. history.

Warren Jeffs and the towns of Hilldale and Colorado City give perfect examples of religious beliefs that are in direct conflict with the law. There are many instances of child brides in these two towns which are completely within their leadership’s beliefs, if not the girls’. The town’s police are accused of “confronting a sect member to try to return an underage bride to her husband after she fled…. Jeffs is imprisoned in Texas after being found guilty last year of sexually assaulting two of his two dozen underage brides.” Staff Reporter, Polygamous towns, home to Warren Jeffs cult, sued for destroying homes and properties of non-believers, Daily Mail UK Online, 22 June, 2012.

Warren Jeffs and the people of Hilldale Utah and Colorado City Arizona can easily utilize a legal precedent of a religious organization being exempt from the laws of the land. It may seem outlandish to some that the church exemption of birth control coverage law on religious grounds could impact these cases, but they certainly may be attempted. Child brides are found in a variety of religions around the world according to International Center for Research on Women. Thus, there will no doubt be a few churches racing Hilldale and Colorado City to test the new legal precedent of religious exemption in their cases.

Child abuse is another example, because those who believe the Proverbs 13:24 quote “spare the rod and spoil the child,” or the example of stoning a rebellious child, give license to the parent when society considers such punishment excessive or abusive. Would you care to take any bets as to which will be the first to test the religious exemption from laws first: bigamy, child brides, or child abuse?

Domestic violence
Then there is the little-talked-about issue of domestic violence within the church. Many Evangelical pastors stand firm that a woman has no biblical grounds to leave an abusive husband. Such a statement was even visible on Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church website until it received media attention. First, note that by addressing that the wife must stay, they are admitting that they are aware there is a domestic abuse problem in the church membership. There is enough of a problem to have a policy and to post it. This is still an issue that most don’t want to admit is a problem in the church, but there are those churches that have in their belief structure that women need to be corrected and even struck, that women must be tightly reigned in if they are rebellious like Eve. A domestic violence case may eventually make it to court, utilizing the “religious exemption from laws” precedent. It is more a question of when, not if, that defense shall be brought forth.

Worth speaking up
We haven’t touched on the many other laws that will probably be challenged such as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, popularly called the Matthew Shepard Act, or even the elimination of the minimum wage requirement based on Matthew 20:1-16.

As you can see, the legal precedent of granting a church or religious organization exemption from a valid law is potentially far-reaching. The ripples from such a decision will undermine the civil order around us and wear at the fabric of our very society. It is critical to consider the ramifications these legal challenges based on religion will definitely have. The impacts may appear in ways we could not imagine at this point. It is too high a price on many grounds. Write your state and federal elected officials with these concerns and write to your newspapers. This is too important to sit by as a spectator.

 A.F. Alexander is the author of “Religious Right: The Greatest Threat to Democracy.” She holds a BSBA degree, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Sacred Theology. She has worked in “Fortune 500” companies or the defense industry her entire adult life. She is a native of Colorado and has been politically engaged since elementary school. She also witnessed the move of Focus on the Family into her hometown and the dramatic impact it has had on the city.

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