THE IRS SAYS SATANISM IS GOOD FOR YOUR COMMUNITY
The headline on Religion News Services this week reads, “The Satanic Temple Is a Real Religion, Says IRS.”
Although this statement is mostly factual, it’s also, amazingly, pretty much completely wrong. I mean, yes, the Temple is a religion, that part’s right (hence the use of the word “temple,” for example), and I imagine at least someone at the IRS concedes this, so yeah.
But that’s not what this week’s tax announcement meant. It wasn’t even the question that was asked. This kind of confusion is partly just because nobody really understands or agrees about what religion even is, like quantum physics or why exactly Max Landis is still around.
But it’s also probably rooted in the fact that America’s tradition of church tax exemptions is also really weird. It’s one of those out of place holdovers from the 18th century, like the Electoral College and institutional racism and fashionable powdered wigs. I guess maybe not all of those have endured, but let’s not get bogged down in details.
That RNS story by Menachem Wecker is actually quite sharp, pointing out that few Americans agree even about strict terms of their own religions and that most religious privilege is just the product of a church sticking around long enough.
But the editors’ headline is completely backwards. The IRS doesn’t decide what a religion is. Their purview is actually more interesting than that, albeit in the same way that, say, freak vacuum cleaner fatalities qualify as interesting.
The IRS does not make decisions about religions but rather about tax-exempt churches. And just what the hell even are those?
In the 1970 Supreme Court case Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, New York landlord Frederick Walz complained that church tax exemption violated the constitution.
Chief Justice Warren Burger sank his teeth into the court’s meaty 8-1 decision upholding the exemption, writing:
“Certain entities that exist in a harmonious relationship to the community at large, and that foster its ‘moral or mental improvement,’ should not be inhibited in their activities by property taxation.”
Burger argues that the exemption does not create a special consideration for churches. Rather, it just includes them in a broad category of beneficial, tax-exempt organizations like “hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, and scientific, professional, historical, and patriotic groups.”
Like a hospital or a library, the courts presume that a church is good to have around. Which is, um, quite a leap, frankly. Burger had rare insight but only medium judgment, and his reasoning was not always well done.
Writing for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor notes that the IRS “automatically grants tax exemption to churches, as distinct from religiously-based nonprofit groups, which must file for exemption like other nonprofits.”
But the IRS guidelines add that “many churches do seek IRS recognition of tax-exempt status because that recognition provides reliance that a church is recognized as exempt.”
So, try to follow me here: The IRS did not just now decide that the Satanic Temple is tax exempt. What they’ve actually declared is that TST was ALWAYS exempt, even though hitherto nobody was really 100 percent sure about it.
And they also (indirectly) furnished a reason why: It “exists in a harmonious relationship to the community and fosters moral or mental improvement,” as the Burgermeister put it.
So the IRS does not say that Satanism is a religion. The IRS says that Satanism is a religion that’s good for its community. Or at least that it closely enough resembles that standard that they don’t want to get in the way with a bill.
That’s actually a much more profound conclusion. Also one that’s far more likely to cause Bill Dononhue to shit himself to death in rage, so points on that.
The problem is that this is really not a thing that courts and bureaucrats should be making value judgments about anyway. Consider: Is the Roman Catholic Church in a “harmonious relationship” with the community?
A body like the IRS can’t really know what’s good for us. They just give churches the benefit of the doubt because, well, they’re churches. Therefore they’re presumed to be good in some shapeless way, like Gerard Depardieu.
Pew Research’s Michael Lipka points out that countries like Germany, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and Italy all tax churches.
In the past, TST mostly held that American churches ought to pay up too. The new designation represents a change, but not a shocking one, given that they telegraphed the move almost a full two years ago.
“The Satanic Temple must re-evaluate its refusal to accept religious tax-exemption,” reads a Temple newsletter from May 2017, vowing to “meet our opponent on equal footing so to as balance a frighteningly asymmetrical battle.” Not a lot of wiggle room that language.
For the record, I’m not one of the people who is mad about this. From a realpolitik point of view, it’s probably the only smart move.
But it does give me pause: On one hand, the whole idea of church exemptions is a bogus, broken system, and any who participates in a bad system cannot help but perpetuate it.
On the other hand, the entire federal government is broken, and yet we do still all inevitably take recourse to its institutions when we feel we have to, if only because the other option would be to move to a libertarian micro state and end up getting shot in our kitchens.
So when are we selling out versus just being practical? I don’t know the answer to that. I feel like I say that a lot, but these are big questions and I’m only one man here. (If that.)
What I do know is that for very many of us this is the first time we’ve ever asked. So maybe this news cycle is a good time to stop and give some consideration to why we do the things that we do in society–and to ask what might make us change?