Considering the stakes, it’s surprising that no one seemed to understand the implications of the legal campaign. The seeds were sown in the unexpectedly strong American response to the “Reclaim Our Glory” presidential slogan. The idea of turning back the clock a couple decades proved to be incredibly addictive to the American people. It started with bold claims that had no basis in fact, but once the voters showed their eagerness to believe, the promises became ever more exaggerated with no possibility of being realized. It didn’t matter. The voters took the bait – hook, line and sinker. The partners of Jerome, Jerome and Avery, P.C., decided to seize the opportunity. The country was due for a change.
The lawyers felt there was some fat to trim in the legal system – that confusion of legal precedents – and they could act as the butchers. The presidential campaign had turned the American voters into the carving tools, so all they needed were the customers. Much discussion and a fair amount of forty year old scotch figured into that strategy session, but in the end, the decision was made to dive into the deep end of the pool. They would not begin with a small, trial suit. They were going for the big prize. Jerome, Jerome and Avery would solicit the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the noble crusade to narrow the definition of church and religion. The eight men and one woman around the conference table were certain that they were doing the right thing for the country. Quite good for the law firm’s revenues, too, of course.
It began with John Oliver. His ridiculous stunt of creating a church for his HBO show – Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, indeed – led to the formation of hundreds, perhaps thousands of new churches over the following two years. They were making a mockery of the institution of religion and some controls were needed. The Church of Tax-Free Lottery Winnings was a perfect example, and let’s not forget the Brotherhood of Property Tax Freedom. Under the country’s liberal church definition laws, these ridiculous entities were actually legal churches, but with a Supreme Court consisting of five Roman Catholics and three Jews, now seemed to be the time to narrow the definition. All they would need was a tie.
They would bring the federal lawsuit in tax-and-spend, Roman Catholic Massachusetts. These mock churches caused injury to the institution of Roman Catholicism by siphoning off its congregants and their financial support with unrealistic promises of lottery winnings and unethical tax-evasion schemes.
The appeals case would also be heard in Boston by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit which handled all federal appeals in New England. This would turn out to be the true test. While Catholicism is by far the largest religious affiliation for New Englanders, the percent participating in any regular religious service had dropped significantly over the past few decades. Still, other than some vocal wackos in New Hampshire, the two churches being challenged had only light support in New England. And the rest of the region was rather sick of New Hampshire and their motto anyway.
Jerome, Jerome and Avery enlisted the services of a highly successful political action team headed by Stanley Łewanski, the staunch Catholic who made his fortune in smoked meats. On the coattails of the “Reclaim Our Glory” presidential campaign slogan, Łewanski and his team engineered the “Back to Basics” movement. With push-polls, advertisements paid for by unknown groups with patriotic names, and support from several celebrities, the Back to Basics movement garnered tremendous support among a wide spectrum of Americans.
For the middle class, Back to Basics meant a return to stable manufacturing jobs, good affordable healthcare and reasonable college tuition costs. For men, it meant an end to political correctness and not having to look over your shoulder because something you said or did would come back to haunt you. For many women, it meant that it would again be safe to send your kids outside to play without having to worry about every little thing. And for immigrants, it meant a time when they were accepted as an integral part of a strong country and its growing economy.
To almost everyone, it meant an end of those ridiculous mock churches which were just created to help the rich avoid paying their fair share. Never mind that lotteries and the Top 1% have very little overlap; Łewanski’s team knew how to cater a message.
Under Łewanski’s direction, campaigns were organized in which angry citizens threatened impeachment of judges and elected officials if the First Circuit decided that the Church of Tax-Free Lottery Winnings and the Brotherhood of Property Tax Freedom were legitimate religious entities. They didn’t have a chance; the unanimous decision affirmed the lower court’s ruling against religious entity status. The losers wanted to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and, perhaps solely for the entertainment value, the ACLU agreed to represent them. Because the Republican Senate had no intention of holding hearings on President Hilary Clinton’s Supreme Court nominee, a 4-4 tie was as good as a victory for the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Things looked promising.
The Supreme Court ruling is only a few days old now, and it took everyone by surprise, even the partners at Jerome, Jerome, and Avery. During oral arguments, the justices gave little indication of how they would vote, but in hindsight, the composition of the court was the biggest hint – five Roman Catholics and three Jews.
The ruling affirmed the lower court’s decision that the challenged churches did not meet the criteria to be considered legitimate religious entities. That was not a surprise. The court then went on to clarify that criteria. At a result, other religious organizations lost their protected status.
In the unanimous opinion authored by the Chief Justice, the constitution was being considered a dead document with respect to religious entity status. In other words, the issue was considered from the prospective of the founding fathers at the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights was written, and not based on modern day situations. Only Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the Christian denominations that existed in 1789 are to be considered legitimate religious entities; latecomers are not.
Appalachian snake handlers and non-denominational mega churches are reclassified as community organizations, and they will have to show that a high percentage of their income is used to benefit those outside of the community in order to keep their tax-exempt status. Churches that use radio and television to solicit contributions or sell products are now considered businesses and business tax forms will have to be filed with the IRS and state and local taxing authorities, if applicable. The United Church of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints don’t have a long enough pedigree to qualify as tax-exempt religious entities.
There was an uproar, of course, but the justices pointed out in a rare written statement that the delisted organizations – not “churches” – could still achieve tax-exempt status as long as a large portion of their income went to help those outside their own communities. The statement also alluded to the fact that Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, and aside from impeaching all of them at the same time – which would throw the country into chaos – there wasn’t much that could be done about it. The justices adjourned the session and left the capital.
And so here I am, siting in this beautifully ornate and high maintenance church building on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. Our non-denominational, all-faiths congregation purchased the building from the Episcopal Diocese of New York for a single dollar in 2009. The steady decline in mainstream Christian denomination membership in the U.S., combined with the financial difficulties caused by the Great Recession, led to the diocese’s decision to close St. Albans and sell the building. Our members, on the other hand, were drawn primarily from the Top 1%. Some disgruntled ex-members have referred to us as a country club or fraternity, but we didn’t mind. All religions are brotherhoods really, and being labeled a country club helped our recruiting efforts among those with means. Times were good – at least until the Supreme Court weighed in a few days ago.
Uncharacteristically for a large governmental agency, the IRS put out a statement within a day. They were bound by the U.S. Tax Code as it now stood following the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the religious exemption sections. Unless a constitutional amendment is ratified which will expand the list, the only Christian denominations which qualify for tax-exempt status are Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist and Unitarian. Having spun off from one of those denominations after 1789 does not count. Of course, Wiccan also predated the founding fathers, but as it’s not a Christian religion, it seems to be excluded from the acceptable list per the Supreme Court’s decision. There weren’t any Wiccan organizations receiving special tax treatment anyway.
The IRS Director warned that the language for a constitutional amendment to widen the tax exempt status of religious organizations would have to be carefully crafted. If too vague, the amendment may make a wide range of other organizations and businesses tax-exempt. Should that happen, the federal government tax revenues could be cut by as much as fifty percent. The same peril exists for any state or local entity hoping to exempt certain non-Supreme Court defined “churches” from tax and reporting obligations. New York City has already decided not to venture into this quagmire.
Our stained glass windows are truly masterpieces. In the morning sun, the blues are remarkably vibrant, the reds incredibly poignant. This church – both the building and the society – are a pathway to finding inner peace for me and so many others, but not today.
We need a new roof. We were only a couple weeks into our $6 million campaign, and had already received pledges totaling $2.7 million. Yesterday, the first few of our financially savvy Top 1%’ers withdrew their pledges because the donations would no longer be tax deductible. More are sure to follow suit. Our congregation will shrink and this beautiful building will fall into disrepair. We may be able to raise the needed funds by selling naming rights to our most generous donors – they do like to see their names on buildings – but that goes against the spirit of this all-faiths institution.
We appear to only have three options. We can shut down the church, sell the building, give the net proceeds to charity, and I can look for another job. I’m not certain for what other job I may be qualified, and besides, that sounds like defeat. Hell – it is defeat, but it’s still an option. We can also petition one of the approved churches for inclusion. Again, I would have to look for other employment.
We have one other valuable asset – the air space above our roof. We were offered $15 million last year if we signed over our rights and allowed a developer to build around and over us. We refused. We had plenty of money from a wealthy and generous membership, and such a building would change the character of our worship and community services. Maybe we should reconsider the offer. There are so many questions. Would that income now be taxable, and how long would it last anyway? How quickly will maintenance, property tax, legal and accountant fees drain our reserves? Are we even able to survive for more than a few years?
One potentially good thing: perhaps we wouldn’t have to replace the roof since it would no longer rain and snow on us. It seems like there is an uplifting message to be teased out of there somewhere.
It’s a little hard to do uplifting today. I can’t get my mind off the way the blues and reds will change when there is no longer direct sunlight striking those windows. I suppose a downbeat homily entitled “Darkened Windows” would hasten the exodus of our congregants. I’ll work on something a little more positive – tomorrow. Today, I just need to look at these windows.