Obergefell v. Hodges and Tax Exemption for Churches

The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage settled little. It merely launched a bigger struggle over the definition of marriage.

Now, resistance to Obergefell v. Hodges will join Roe v. Wade in becoming another, long-tailed comet moving across the socio-political skies of America.  

A third, landmark Supreme Court initiative waits over the horizon. It will involve the 2nd Amendment. Perhaps not soon, but coming.

Following Obergefell v. Hodges, much discussion now centers on the potential loss of tax-exempt status to churches that resist.  Same-sex marriage zealots will look for opportunities to cement the Court’s decision by forcing churches, through the lower courts, to perform same-sex marriages.

Either they do it – the churches – or lose it (their tax-exempt status).

Meanwhile, denominational hierarchies will huddle behind closed doors and examine options beyond compliance or non-compliance when their doctrine clearly forbids clergy to conduct marriage ceremonies for any couple other than one man and one woman.

The Roman Catholic Church will, of course, be the lead ecclesiastic actor in this drama.

The federal government is unlikely to undertake a frontal assault on Roman Catholics, but it could move aggressively against one of the smaller, less financially endowed, Protestant denominations. Or, it may act against a very large, independent congregation.

When a church refuses to perform a same-sex marriage, the threat will be to remove the organization’s tax-exempt status.  If the entire denomination, or a territorial division of the whole, supports an individual congregation that refuses to comply with what plaintiff’s lawyers will represent as a same-sex couple’s constitutional “right” to have their ceremony performed in the church, the entire denomination may be threatened with the cancellation of its tax-exempt status.

The anticipation of this confrontation will provoke chin-scratching and hand-wringing in the cloistered halls where the officialdom of ecclesiastical bureaucracies deliberates on matters of church and state polity. Risk assessments will be examined, strategies planned, statements released. 

Prudent clerics will search for a third way beyond compliance or non-compliance -- a compromise way. One with minimum blowback from the laity who fund their institution. 

In both state and church, politics is the art of compromise.

It will be at that moment -- when the grease is being applied to skid past threats to withhold the institution’s tax-exempt status -- when the descendents of Polycarp, 2nd Century Christian Bishop of Smyrna, Turkey, will need to step-up.

Polycarp was martyred about 155 A.D.  He was first burned at the stake, and then stabbed to speed up his dying.

According to the traditional account of his death, before his final ordeal the Roman official asked him, “What harm is there to say ‘Lord Caesar,’ and to offer incense, and all that sort of thing, to save yourself?”

Saint Polycarp replied: “I’m not going to do what you tell me to do.”

The government cancelled his life; he had no tax-exempt status to sacrifice.

His Church, no stranger to strife, was born in adversity. It grew from its courage to resist. It matured by failing to conform.  

Over time, as it matriculates into comfort, it grows into complacency, and aligns itself within cultural relativism.

Until, eventually, it ceases to matter.

In the near future, all governments -- but particularly the federal one -- will search for new and enhanced sources of tax revenue. Churches, called upon to pay their fair share, will have less income as the charitable donation tax-deduction is phased out. Obergefell v. Hodges may accelerate that process. 

As that happens, the call for fairness should, also, be addressed to endowed private universities and tax-exempt foundations. They are, at least, as much recipients of favored government treatment as the welfare mother with six kids. And much less needy.

Those that worry about the fate of the Church without tax-exempt status do so without cause.

When, after years of separation, Joseph of the Old Testament was reunited with his brothers who sold him into slavery, they feared he would seek revenge, even though he had flourished in Egypt. He allayed their fears saying, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

If churches lose tax-exempt status because of non-compliance with government edicts mandating they perform same-sex marriages, then whatever the government’s intentions, the end result will be good for the church. Or, better than good.

Lee Cary, a frequent contributor to the American Thinker since 2007, is a retired United Methodist Church minister, and holds Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Theology.                                                         

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