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Landmark Ruling

By Roger Kiska, Senior Legal Counsel

Things operate a bit different in Europe when it comes to churches.

Europe does not have a history of a strict separation of church and state where the state does not interfere in the internal affairs of the church. In fact, some countries in Europe still have state churches, for example, the Church of England.

Despite the close relationship between church and state in Europe, there exists a very real threat for some countries to stifle religious freedom. Last year, Hungary passed a Church Act requiring churches to register with the State to have legal status and maintain tax exempt status, among other things.

Under the old law in Hungary, registering a church was a simple and straightforward task. But the 2013 Church Act changed that, adding several controversial provisions that stifled the right of churches in Hungary to even exist.

The Church Act de-registered all but a select and arbitrary listing of churches recognized by the parliament. Then, the churches that were de-registered were required to register anew under the new law that contained new criteria for registration. Those churches who did not meet the new criteria (despite the fact that several of the automatically registered churches did not meet the criteria) could no longer exist as churches and enjoy the benefits therein. The only means of appeal was to the Parliament itself.

But on Tuesday, April 8, the European Court of Human Rights ruled decisively and comprehensively that Hungary’s new Church Act was contrary to the principles of the European Convention of Human Rights. Alliance Defending Freedom was co-counsel for several churches in the case of Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary.

The Court held that the de-registration (and subsequent refusal to re-register) certain churches was a violation of freedom of assembly and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It also ruled:

    • The de-registration and subsequent refusal to re-register the same church hurt the reputation of the churches publicly.

    • The law infringed upon the religious liberty of churches in Hungary.

    • The new requirements to register (that the church must be recognized internationally for at least 100 years or within Hungary for at least 20 years for example) were excessive.

    • And that the Parliament, a political body, was an inappropriate venue to adjudicate the legitimacy of a religious body.

The ruling is a landmark judgment protecting churches from discriminatory treatment in Hungary, and also important for large portions of Central, Eastern and Mediterranean Europe where registration questions loom large and government intervention can be overly intrusive.

Far from being a victory only for Christians in Hungary, the judgment is truly a victory for religious freedom for all Europeans.

The case illustrates the need for churches to remain vigilant against governmental intrusion.  Alliance Defending Freedom is active across the world in protecting and defending the right of the Church to “be the Church” and to minister freely without hindrance from discrimination by the government.

If your church is experiencing discrimination or governmental hindrance, contact us so an attorney can review your situation.

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By Pastor Nathan A. Cherry and Eric Porteous

By now you’ve probably heard of the florist in Washington, the baker in Colorado, and the photographer in New Mexico. Each of these brave and devout people have faced lawsuits for adhering to their religious convictions.

It’s a troubling time in our nation indeed. After all, these are just 3 cases, but there are many more just like them.

The right to act on what we believe and live out our faith are under attack.

And with so many in our congregations misinformed or uniformed, pastors…we need you to rise up.

We need you to boldly preach the Gospel in your churches.

100% Biblical Truth.

No wavering.

No fear of backlash, IRS codes, or threats from the government.

Pure God-given fortitude.

Have churches been intimidated and lied to regarding their speech rights since the adoption of the “Johnson Amendment” in 1954?

Absolutely.

Will that happen to you?

Maybe.

But, keep this in mind. To date, not one church has ever lost its tax exempt status over political involvement and activism. Furthermore, even if a church’s tax-exempt status was revoked, it would only be for one day (the day of the “illegal activity”).

In other words, the IRS knows it cannot legally revoke a church’s tax-exempt status permanently.

They are crying wolf.

Don’t give in to their empty threats.

Educate yourselves.

Know the law.

And most of all, trust in the Lord.

Consider our founding fathers, many of whom had seminary and Bible degrees or were pastors themselves. They believed so strongly in the involvement of pastors and Bible teachers in political matters that they risked their lives signing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

As a pastor, you have every right to engage in Biblical teaching on social issues and even to “shine a light” on the position of candidates in order to shepherd your congregation.

We can’t segregate our faith from our politics.

Politics should be born of faith.

The two are inseparable.

And if you need a little more motivation to speak on these issues from your pulpit, watch this video of Michelle Obama telling a church group that there is “no place better” to talk about politics than in the church.

Pastors, it’s time to be bold.

It’s time to rise up.

Without religious freedom many of you could be out of a job, and it would be sad to see a day when a country that was once free to worship no longer enjoyed that freedom due to the apathy of its religious leaders.

Make the pledge today to unite with thousands of pastors across the country for Pulpit Freedom Sunday on October 5, 2014.

Your congregation needs you.

This country needs you.

And the future of religious freedom could depend on you.

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Why is your church tax exempt?  Why should it continue to be tax exempt? If I were to sit down and ask you these questions, would you have a clear and coherent answer? I suspect this is something we seldom think about. After all, tax exemption for churches has always been given and we assume, because of its historical longevity, it always will be given.

The fact that most Americans cannot explain why their church is tax exempt indicates a forgotten history and is emblematic of a society that has systematically devalued the church as a beneficial societal institution.

Whenever I litigate a case about church tax exemption or Pulpit Freedom Sunday, the inevitable media comments go something like this: “Churches should pay taxes just like everyone else! They have tons of money, so why can’t they pay their fair share? Why should churches get a free ride? Make them pay!” Comments like these are more prevalent today than any other time I can remember.

Cases involving local governments attempting to tax churches are also becoming more prevalent. For example, Alliance Defending Freedom litigated and won a case against the City of Mission, Kansas, for attempting to impose a “driveway tax” on churches. Or consider the case of Liberty Assembly of God in New Hampshire which was slapped with a property tax bill simply because the local taxing authorities rifled through the church buildings and concluded that because some rooms were “untidy,” the church was not using them for a religious purpose.

So why should churches be tax exempt? There are very sound and valid reasons for church tax exemption. First, there is the “social benefit” theory of tax exemption. This recognizes the fact that churches provide great benefits to society by their good works. Churches minister to the poor and needy in the community, provide numerous social services for the downtrodden among us, and reach out to the “least of these” in thousands of different ways. The social benefit theory justifies tax exemption for churches as a kind of bargain – churches provide needed services, so they are entitled to tax exemption.

One corollary of the “social benefit” theory that is often overlooked is what I have termed the “intangible benefit” theory of tax exemption. This highlights the intangible and often unseen benefits provided by churches to the community. Things like reduced crime rates resulting from transformed lives, suicides prevented when people surrender to Christ, and people with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working and virtuous citizens who contribute to the well-being of the community. It is difficult to put a price tag on these types of intangible benefits provided by churches, but there is no question that they exist.

An interesting study conducted a few years ago attempted to put a value on the economic worth of one church. The study estimated that the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia provided over six million dollars of economic value to the community, a figure that is nearly ten times the church’s annual budget.

It is easy to see the benefits provided by churches. In fact, churches provide more social services and intangible benefits to the community than they would ever pay in taxes. It makes no sense to tax churches because the tax dollars taken from the church reduce the amount of benefits it can provide to the community. In a very real sense, taxing churches harms society.

But there is also a constitutional reason why churches are tax exempt. Our history is one of an unbroken practice of exempting churches from taxation. Churches were exempt from the very first time the tax code was passed at the federal level, and have remained exempt in every iteration of the tax code ever since. Every state in America also exempts churches from property taxes. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case regarding the property tax exemption of churches, called Walz v. Tax Commission, it stated that providing a tax exemption for churches was a less intrusive option under the Constitution than requiring churches to pay taxes.

That makes sense when you stop and think about it. As the Supreme Court said in a very early case, “The power to tax involves the power to control.”  Taxation is, in essence, a very strong assertion of control by a sovereign over its subjects. Exempting churches is a way to ensure that the state cannot control churches.

Overall, there are very good reasons why churches are tax exempt. We need to remember these reasons and proclaim them to others in a society who reflexively shouts that the Church should pay its fair share. We should take up the cause of passionate defenders of church tax exemption like Kentucky State Representative Whittaker. During the debates on the Kentucky Constitution in 1890, he loudly proclaimed, “Let an untaxed Gospel be preached, in an untaxed church-house, from an untaxed pulpit; let the emblem of a crucified, but risen Christ be administered from an untaxed altar, and, as the spire points heavenward, . . . let it stand forever untaxed.” Amen.

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

“I’m sure glad I know you.  I may do something or say something someday where I need you to represent me.  I’m glad I have your number in my phone.  I may be using it one day.”  These words were most recently spoken to me by a friend at a school carnival while my kids were enjoying bounce houses and carnival games.

When I started my career as a religious freedom litigator, I used to occasionally hear statements like this spoken with a smile and a chuckle.  But in recent years, I have heard this more frequently, from audience members who have heard me speak, from family members at gatherings, and from friends at places like the school carnival.  And recently, these statements are not said with a smile and a chuckle.  They are said with a sense of foreboding.

Why is it that Christians have a sense that our faith is under attack and that we are a disfavored minority on the road to sure persecution?  One reason is because of the stories we see of fellow believers who are currently undergoing trials and tribulations for simply exercising their faith.

One recent story is of Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington state florist. Barronelle is the owner of Arlene’s Flowers.  She denied a request from a long-time customer to do the flower arrangements for his same-sex wedding ceremony after such ceremonies became legal in Washington in 2012.  Barronelle explained that the decision she made was very difficult, but that, after discussing it with her husband, it basically boiled down to the fact that she could not do the wedding because of her relationship with Christ.

Barronelle now finds herself facing two separate lawsuits because of her decision to abide by her religious faith and not do the flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding ceremony.  You can read a vivid account of Barronelle’s story here, and watch as Barronelle shares in her own words about this unprecedented attack on her faith in the video below.

Sadly, Barronelle’s story is not the only one.  There are numerous accounts of Christians who are facing legal trials and tribulations simply for abiding by their religious convictions.  Perhaps these accounts demonstrate why Christians today have a real foreboding sense that persecution is coming. They’ve heard the stories and see the possibility in a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  And they see the cultural disapproval and hostility increasing at a startlingly rapid pace.

Pastor, what are you doing to prepare your congregation to live in a culture that seems bent on denying them the right to live out their faith and to share their faith with others around them?  Are they aware of the increasing attacks on people of faith?  Why not take a moment to show your congregation the video of Barronelle’s story?

Is your congregation also aware of their legal rights?  Take a moment to let them know that Alliance Defending Freedom is here to help.  Barronelle Stutzman is not alone in her fight against the Washington Attorney General and the ACLU.  Alliance Defending Freedom is with her every step of the way to protect her right to live out her faith.  And we will be there to protect others as well, including potentially, those in your congregation.

In today’s culture, Christians need to certainly be aware of the increasing attacks on people of faith.  But they need to also take hope that God has raised up an alliance that stands strong together to defend the faith and the faithful.  Pastor, you are in a unique position to educate your congregation about the attacks that are occurring, and about how Alliance Defending Freedom is here to help.

Let us know if you, your church, or one of your congregation members needs our legal assistance.  You can go to our website at www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org or you can call (800) 835-5233 to have an attorney review the situation.

Together, we can be an alliance defending freedom.

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Join over 70,000 on our Speak Up Church facebook page. You have support!

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As readers of this blog know, ADF has conducted Pulpit Freedom Sunday since 2008.  Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a legal project designed to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or control.  The government, by applying the Johnson Amendment to churches and pastors, has been mandating that certain content in a pastor’s sermon is off-limits and can result in penalties against the church.  ADF launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008 to challenge the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment.  We believe that it is unconstitutional for the government to attempt in any way to censor a pastor’s sermon.

In 2008, Alliance Defending Freedom conducted the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday on September 28. Starting with 33 pastors from 22 states in 2008, Pulpit Freedom Sunday participation has grown steadily to a high of 1621 participants in 2012. These pastors made their sermons public.  They were not preaching secretly or trying to “get away” with something.  Rather, these pastors sincerely want to regain their right to speak freely during their sermons without having to wonder or fear if a government agency is going to punish the church because of something the pastor said from the pulpit.

It has been over six years since Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2008.  Yet the IRS has remained silent.  No pastor has been punished or threatened with punishment by the IRS for participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  I’ve speculated before about the reasons why the IRS has remained silent.  But, in reality, the reasons are unimportant.  What is important is that the IRS has said nothing and done nothing in response to Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

We cannot let up and must continue to march forward to regain a pastor’s right to speak without the presence of the government in the pulpit.  Pulpit Freedom Sunday is coming up on October 5, 2014.  Please, if you are a pastor, sign up to participate this year in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  And if you are not a pastor, then send every pastor you know a link to our website at www.pulpitfreedom.org.  All the information any pastor needs to become aware of the issues and to sign up to participate is on the website.  We must continue our efforts to get the government out of the pulpits of America.  Will you stand together with us and hundreds of other pastors this October?

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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