Finding Meaning, Purpose and Morality in a Godless World

In this latest instalment of my series of articles on fundamental philosophical issues, I go beyond discussing the issue of whether there is a supernatural being, and move on to the next logical step, formulating a paradigm for how we can find meaning, purpose, and morality in a world without such a being.

What is the Meaning of Life?
The meaning of life is simply life itself. There is no meaning beyond our existence and our life experience. There is no greater meaning to it all that can somehow transcend our world. This is it.

So now what?
The all too unfortunate side of this realization is the potential for nihilism or hedonism. Nihilism is the idea that because there is no greater meaning to it all, we should live with the attitude that life is hopeless and pointless. The nihilist would spend life sitting around, moping, and waiting for the inevitable end.

The opposite of the nihilist is the hedonist. The hedonist believes that since there is no greater meaning to it all, he is free to do as he pleases, when he pleases, without any regard for others, and with the only goal of seeking maximum personal pleasure. The hedonist would spend life committing crimes, doing drugs to excess, and walking over others for his or her own benefit.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these attitudes. There is nothing universal that would preclude someone from living a life as such and feeling perfectly content. However, most people would probably be more content not living with either of these attitudes. We do live in a real world with real consequences, and living without regards to others will subject a person to the consequences that individuals in our society have created to deter such attitudes (i.e. laws, social isolation, etc.).
These are not the only options available for living a life in a godless world. There is a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the rational person, and it’s not in the form of a supernatural being.

Purpose
The amazing thing about there being no greater meaning to life beyond life itself is that we have the power to create meaning. Everyone has a blank slate to work with to craft a story that will please himself or herself. We craft a meaning by choosing a purpose. We have the power to decide our purpose, or even several purposes that we will work to fulfill. By fulfilling a purpose, and working to do so, we can live our lives in such a way as to become content with our own existence and the world around us. After one purpose has been fulfilled, we can choose a new one. The meaning of life can be to find and fulfill life purposes.

A purpose can really be anything. It can be to do works of art, start a business, help the poor, enforce the law, help the sick, or create scientific developments. It can even be to start a family, travel, or to spend time with friends or a significant other. Whatever makes us content with our lives. Although this paradigm is very simple, it is also very empowering. Life is ours for the taking. We are in control of our own destiny.

One of my purposes is to create a legacy that will live on after my death. Why would this matter if I don’t believe that I will have the ability to experience that legacy? It is for the same reason that someone would send a check to a charity to help a group of people that he will never see or never meet. Or, from a more selfish perspective, why a celebrity would want to be considered famous to a person that he will never encounter. We as humans share the common experience of life, regardless of the time or place we live in. If there is one way we can transcend our own existence, it is through the life of another. Although their life experiences may have ended long ago, historical figures constantly remind future generations of the experience they had by cementing their names in the history books.

The hedonist or the nihilist lives a life without purpose, and will likely never find spiritual fulfillment. The hedonist could say that his purpose is to do whatever he feels like. If he can truly find meaning in fulfilling that purpose, then perhaps that will create content. But there are very few people who would find such a meaning.

The Religious Paradigm
Under most religions, the meaning of life is simply that each individual life amounts to some minor part of a greater plan by some invisible being or beings. Many questions remain unanswered. What is the meaning of the greater plan? What is my meaning within the greater plan? Why would such a greater plan include suffering? What is the meaning of the creator, and where did he come form? These questions create more confusion and despair than the theories pacify.

The purpose of life in most religions is to follow a list of rules (many of which are ridiculous and inconsistent with contemporary life) that an invisible being wants us to follow in order to gain access to a better afterlife. What is the purpose of the afterlife? What is the purpose of each particular rule? What if the purpose I would like to fulfill conflicts with one of the rules?
The religious paradigm is incomplete. It simply makes up a story and calls it a meaning. An existentialist paradigm may not be as fantastic or magical, but it is rational and complete. The meaning of your life is whatever you want it to be.

Morality
An obvious argument against the concept of choosing your own purpose in life is that someone could choose the purpose of hurting or killing other people. What would make this purpose wrong if it made that person content? Would there not be something universally wrong with hurting others?
There is nothing universally wrong with hurting others. But, a world in which people hurt others would be worse than a world in which people did not. Although there is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, or universal moral code that we should adhere to, the fact remains that there are several independent beings in the world whose interests will inevitably collide. Morality is simply a set of rules that we create to organize human interactions. There is no hard and fast set of rules, but we as a species have been very successful at crafting rules that provide all individuals with the opportunity to fulfill their purposes.

If there is one thing I learned in law school, it’s that there is a solution in law to almost any possible problem resulting from human interaction. The law is constantly evolving as new problems are solved, and old solutions are replaced with better ones. Of course, laws can be bad. For example, a law permitting the killing of someone for having the wrong religious belief. Why would we say that such a law is immoral? It is because such a law is a bad solution to a problem, and there are better solutions that will create more opportunity for happiness.

Many philosophers have searched for a unifying theory of morality. For example, the utilitarian theory states that morality is simply the solution that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The theory attempts to measure levels of good and compare them. This theory fails when you start trying to measure levels of good. Is the value of a great scientist’s life more important than a bum’s? How about two bums? What of a law that provides a huge benefit to a large group, but a serious detriment to one or two people? The world is simply too complex to determine values for every possible interest and measure those values against the values of others.

Another theory is Kant’s categorical imperative, which basically states that an action taken by an individual in any situation should be such an action that should be Universally taken by any person in such a situation. If I see another person’s house, it should be a Universal maxim that I should not break in and steal that person’s TV. The problem with this theory is that it only works for simple human problems. What if there are several competing good things to do. Should I take a good job in a far away city, or stay home to help my ailing mother? There is no universal maxim to solve this problem. A similar situation arises if there are two bad choices.

We as a society have made rules to guide people to make better choices, and to punish choices that we think are bad. We create morality to try and shape the best possible world, but there is no perfect world.

Of course politics is an inevitable factor in discussing morality. Is the United States moral code the best for regulating human interactions? Or is a more socialist European nation like Sweden’s better? Who should determine what is the best moral code for the people of all nations? There is no easy way to make such determinations. Settling who has the best moral code and what it should be is a great goal of humanity that will involve inevitable conflicts in opinion. However, there is no room for moral relativism in this theory. That is to say, there are certain moral codes that are vastly inferior and should not be considered acceptable forms of organizing a society simply because they are accepted by the individuals in that society. For example a society that permits ritual human sacrifice would be vastly inferior to one that did not. It may be for the good of humanity for a more powerful society to enforce its superior moral code on the society committing ritual sacrifice in order to provide a better life for the individuals in that society.

In any discussion of morality and atheism, Hitler and Stalin will inevitably be discussed as examples of what happens when atheists are given the power to enforce their moral views. These individuals led their nations based on what they believed were moral principles. Under skewed forms of utilitarianism, both believed that they were acting for the greater good by killing political dissidents, the mentally ill, Jews and other ethnic minorities. These dictators had inferior moral codes by which they organized their societies. It was not their atheism that led to their horrible deeds, but rather their skewed versions of morality. We have realized that these moral codes were absolutely abhorrent, and should never be allowed to exist again.

These examples of immoral atheists should also be compared with the hundreds of immoral actions by dictators and societies acting around religious foundations of morality. The problem with religious morality is that religions set a moral code based on the prevailing views of morality at the time and in the society that the writers of the religion were living. The Jewish moral code is based on the sections of law in the of the old testament, which were written approximately 2600 years ago (read up on the documentary hypothesis for more information on the origins of the old testament). The Christian moral code is based around morality from 2000 years ago. Islam 1500 years ago. Of course religions generally have their own case law, or religious scholarly writings, interpreting the primary sources and allowing some change. However, these writings are bound by rigid books written by ancient people. The books cannot be amended or changed to reflect changes in prevailing views of what is right or wrong.

Contrast with the US constitution. The US constitution provides a moral code from approximately 250 years ago. However, the constitution permits amendments, meaning that the primary source of law can change as morals change. This flexibility permits change and evolution.

Conclusion
Realizing that there is no god and that our existence is simply a great fluke may be a scary experience, but it does not mean that life cannot persist without spiritual enlightenment. There is opportunity to find meaning in life, fulfill a purpose, and act in a moral way. We have the power to shape our world and our own destiny. We must take control of the power while we are here, for it will not last forever.

Re-examining tax exemptions for religious organizations in the aftermath of proposition 8

CWSL Scholarly Writing Paper
By Dan Revich

March 23, 2009

INTRODUCTION

On November 4, 2008, the Proposition 8 ballot initiative was passed in California with a vote of 52.1% for and 47.9% against. The Proposition added to the California Constitution the statement “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Approximately $39 million was raised by the campaign to support Proposition 8.

This paper will discuss how religious organizations influenced the movement to ban gay marriage, and more specifically how those organizations receive their funding. Federal tax law gives religious organizations tax-exempt status, and allows individuals donating to religious organizations to deduct large portions of those donations from their income taxes. The 1970 Supreme Court holding in Walz v. Tax Commission of City of New York found that tax exemptions for religious organizations are not in violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st amendment to the United States Constitution , and gave taxing authorities the right to grant tax exemptions to religious organizations.

This paper will analyze the constitutionality of those tax exemptions, and re-examine whether they violate the Establishment Clause of the 1st amendment, using the test applied in Lemon v. Kurtzman as a framework for analysis.

Part I of this paper will provide a background to relevant issues, cases and laws relating to Proposition 8 and tax exemptions for religious organizations. Part II will analyze the legality of the religious involvement in Proposition 8. Part III will examine whether tax exemptions are in violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st amendment using a Lemon Test framework as a basis for analysis.

I  BACKGROUND

Part A of the Background section will outline the federal laws governing tax exemptions for religious organizations. Part B will provide a background to the Walz case. Part C will provide a background to the Lemon test that will be used as a basis for analysis in Section III of this paper. Part D will outline the involvement that religious organizations played in the passage of Proposition 8.

A. Tax Exemptions for Religious Organizations

Section 170(c)(2)(b) of the Internal Revenue Code allows tax deductions for donations to “A corporation, trust, or community chest, fund, or foundation organized and operated exclusively for religious charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes…” Section 501(c)(3) of the code gives religious organizations tax exempt status, so long as “no part of the net earnings of [the organization] inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation… and [the organization] does not participate in, or intervene in… any political campaign….”

Under the current system, an individual in the 35% tax bracket receives 35% of any donation he or she makes to a charity as a tax deduction. For example, an individual who pays taxes at a 35% rate will receive $35 in tax deductions from the government for every $100 donated to charity. In the proposed federal budget submitted by the Obama administration, the maximum amount deducted would be reduced to 28% in order to raise money for health care reform. Once the law is in effect, an individual would only receive $28 in tax deductions for every $100 donated to charity.

B. The Walz case

In Walz v. Tax Commission of City of New York, the Supreme Court, under the opinion of Chief Justice Burger, upheld a New York state property tax exemption for property used exclusively for religious purposes. Walz, the owner of real estate in New York, sought an injunction to prevent the New York City Tax Commission from granting property tax exemptions to religious organizations for properties used solely for religious worship. Walz argued that the tax exemption indirectly required taxpayers to make a financial contribution to religious bodies in violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The majority noted that to the framers of the United States Constitution, the “establishment of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.” It discussed how the court had struggled to find a neutral course between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, concluding that any judgment would turn on whether the “particular acts in question are intended to establish or interfere with religious beliefs and practices, or have the effect of doing so.” The court’s opinion will be discussed later in this paper.

C. The Lemon Test

One year after the decision in Walz, the Supreme Court decided the case of Lemon v. Kurzman. In Lemon, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania statutes providing state aid to church-related elementary and secondary schools were challenged as being in violation of the first amendment. The Court found that the subsidies were unconstitutional, in that they presented excessive government entanglement with religious institutions.

The significant aspect of this case is the three part test that the court created to determine whether government entanglement with religion is excessive. The court writes “we must determine the character and purposes of the institutions that are benefitted, the nature of the aid that the State provides and the resulting relationship between the government and religious authority.” I will use the Lemon test as a guideline to discuss the constitutionality of tax subsidies for religious organizations in section III of this paper.

D. Religious Support for Proposition 8

The full extent of religious support for Proposition 8 became public after the 2008 election. It is estimated that approximately half of the financial support in the Yes on 8 campaign came from Mormons. The Latter Day Saints (LDS) Church itself donated $55,000 in monetary and $134,774 in nonmonetary expenditures (mostly staff time by church employees) to support the Yes on 8 cause. Two weeks prior to the election, the Yes on 8 campaign issued an urgent appeal for donations. The campaign sent an e-mail to the 92,000 individuals who registered on the Yes on 8 website www.protectmarriage.com with an urgent plea for funds. It raised $5 million shortly after that appeal, including a $1 million dollar donation from Alan C. Ashton, a computer executive and grandson of a former LDS president.

It was not just the LDS church that gave money to the Yes on 8 campaign. The LDS church was actually the last major church to join the Yes on 8 campaign, according to the New York Times. The campaign was supported by the Catholic Church, Evangelical Christians, and a myriad of ethnic church groups. The full list of contributors to the Proposition 8 campaign is listed on a searchable website hosted by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. Entering a search of “Church” in the Contributor Name field for financial supporters of Proposition 8 yields a list of 75 supporters who made various financial contributions. The San Diego Rock Church, for example, which states “The Rock will be a global and highly trusted model of relevant and innovative evangelism” as its vision statement, donated $25,679.16 to the Yes on 8 campaign. The Grace International Church, based out of Texas, donated $6,301.63 to the campaign. These churches, funded by donations from their members, who in turn received tax breaks for those donations, funneled money into the campaign to end gay marriage.
Religious support extended beyond financial contributions.

It is estimated that 80-90% of the volunteers who canvassed door to door for the Yes on 8 campaign were Mormons. Canvassers were instructed to first determine if the voter believed that God created marriage, and then to emphasize that Proposition 8 was in conformity with God’s will if the voter did. If the voter believed that marriage was a creation of man, then canvassers were to emphasize that Proposition 8 was merely about restoring marriage law. The LDS Church announced its support of Proposition 8 in a letter that was read in every Mormon congregation, in which the church encouraged members to donate time and money to the Yes on 8 cause.

The impact that church sermons and rhetoric had on voters also likely contributed to the success of the ballot initiative. An acquaintance who attended the aforementioned San Diego Rock Church shortly after the vote claimed that the pastor gave a sermon about the importance of the passage of the law. The impact of numerous pastors, priests, and rabbis throughout California instructing their congregations to vote Yes was likely significant.

Finally, religious organizations have also played a role in the fight to prevent Proposition 8 from being overturned. The day after the passage of Proposition 8, a group of gay couples initiated a Petition for Writ of Mandate enjoining state officials from “enforcing, taking any steps to enforce, or directing any persons or entities to enforce” Proposition 8. The Petitioners argue that Proposition 8 is invalid, as it is not an amendment to the California constitution, but a revision.

Briefs in support of respondent (and intervener siding with respondent) were filed with the California Supreme Court by several religious organizations, including Kingdom of Heaven, California Catholic Conference, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and The Church of the Messiah.

II  LEGALITY OF RELIGIOUS INVOLVEMENT IN PROPOSITION 8

A primary issue is whether the religious involvement discussed in the background section is in violation of current laws regulating political activities of religious organizations. Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits charitable organizations from undertaking in any political campaign activity, and requires that they only engage in minimal lobbying. There are three requirements that charitable organizations must meet in order to receive tax-exempt status: No part of the net earnings may benefit a private shareholder or individual; No substantial part of the organization’s activities may consist of lobbying or attempting to otherwise influence legislation, and; the entity may not participate in or intervene in a political campaign for any political office.

IRS regulations state that “the publication or distribution of written or printed statements or the making of oral statements on behalf of or in opposition to… a candidate” is prohibited. Organizations may participate in voter education, voter registration and voter encouragement, so long as they do not favor one candidate over another. Political candidates may speak to religious organizations, so long as the organization provides an equal opportunity for competing candidates to participate, does not indicate whether it supports or opposes the candidate, and does not use the event to fundraise. 501(c)(3) organizations can take positions on issues, so long as they do not favor one candidate over the other.

In Branch Ministries v. Rossotti , Branch Ministries Church challenged the IRS’s revocation of its tax-exempt status, which occurred after the church published an ad in USA Today and the Washington Times four days before the 1992 election. The ad urged Christians not to vote for presidential candidate Bill Clinton because of his views on social issues. The court of appeals for the District of Columbia found that the IRS’s revocation of the Church’s tax-exempt status did not violate the U.S. Constitution or exceed the IRS’s statutory authority. The court noted that withdrawal of tax exempt status only violates the first amendment if it is “…denie[d] … because of conduct mandated by religious belief, thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” The Court stated that: “Although its advertisements reflected its religious convictions on certain questions of morality, the Church does not maintain that a withdrawal from electoral politics would violate its beliefs.” The court found that the burden of losing tax-exempt status was not constitutionally significant. It is clear that losing tax exempt status would place a burden on churches, as most of a church’s income is derived from donations.

A complaint was filed against the LDS church by Fred Karger, founder of the group Californians Against Hate, for violations of the California election law in supporting Proposition 8. California law requires that Churches disclose all contributions to political campaigns made by religious organizations. The complaint launched an investigation by the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The Church subsequently disclosed all contributions to California authorities, but claimed that “the filing is in no way prompted by an investigation by the California Fair Political Practices Commission.” Proposition 8 supporters also attempted to get an injunction to prevent donor lists from being made public, but U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. ordered that the names be released, arguing that disclosure laws are in place to protect the public.

Recent internet campaigns seek to file complaints with the IRS to remove the LDS church’s tax exempt status because of its support for the Yes on 8 campaign. However, as Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State asserts, “while the tax code has a zero tolerance for endorsements of candidates, the tax code gives wide latitude for churches to engage in discussions of policy matters and moral questions, including when posed as initiatives.” The LDS Church would only lose its tax-exempt status if a substantial part of the Church’s funds went towards political activities. Generally, charitable organizations that spend less than 10% of total revenues on non-charitable activities will not lose their tax-exempt status. The LDS church is so large that the amount spent on the Proposition 8 campaign would not meet the 10% threshold.

Thus, under current tax law, it appears that the involvement of religious organizations in the passage of Proposition 8 was within the confines of acceptable political activity, and was therefore not in violation the law. Supporting the Yes on 8 campaign did not amount to actually supporting a particular candidate, but simply supporting a political cause. I would argue that religious organizations are inherently political, and therefore attempting to stifle their political activities is inevitably futile. The free reign of religious organizations in their political activities would not be a problem but for the fact that religious organizations receive tax-exempt status. The alternative to attempting to control what religious organizations do in order to receive tax-exempt statues would be to simply remove that status completely.

III THE CONSTITUTIONALITY OF TAX EXEMPTIONS FOR RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS

This section will discuss whether tax exemptions for religious organizations satisfy the three prongs of the lemon test. Part A will discuss the nature of the aid that the state provides, examining whether tax exemptions for donations to religious organizations are equivalent to government subsidies. Part B will examine the resulting relationship between the government and religious authority, discussing whether tax exemptions for religious organizations serve to establish a state religion. Part C will examine the character and purposes of the institutions that are benefitted, discussing whether religious organizations are beneficial to society.

A. Are Tax Exemptions for Religious Organizations Equivalent to Government Subsidies?
“The nature of the aid that the state provides”

In the Walz case, the majority argued that “The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state.” The court used the analogy of libraries, art galleries and hospitals to show that other organizations receive tax exempt status, but are not considered arms of the state.
In his dissent to Walz, Justice Douglas argues against the claim that a tax exemption is not a subsidy. He makes the analogy of giving a federal grant to a church to construct an edifice, and claims that a tax exemptions would serve the same purpose. Douglas refutes the majority’s argument that many other private institutions receive government subsidies, arguing that these organizations represent “social welfare programs within the reach of the police power.”

In Mueller v. Allen, taxpayers fought a tax deduction that was available for parents of children attending sectarian schools. In a 5-4 ruling, the majority, led by Justice Rehnquist, argued that “…financial assistance provided to parents ultimately has an economic effect comparable to that of aid given directly to the schools attended by their children. It is also true, however, that under Minnesota’s arrangement, public funds become available only as a result of numerous, private choices of individual parents of school-age children” . He continues “Where, as here, aid to parochial schools is available only as a result of decisions of individual parents, no ‘imprimatur of State approval’… can be deemed to have been conferred on any particular religion, or on religion generally.”

In his dissent to Mueller, Justice Marshall argues that “By ensuring that parents will be reimbursed for tuition payments they make, the Minnesota statute requires that taxpayers in general pay for the cost of parochial education and extends a financial ‘incentive to parents to send their children to sectarian schools’.” He continues that “it makes no difference whether the qualifying ‘parent receives an actual cash payment or is allowed to reduce … the sum he would otherwise be obliged to pay over to the State.”

When applying Marshall’s arguments to tax exemptions for donations to religious organizations, it is clear that the same logic applies. Taxpayers in general pay for the operating costs of religious organizations because of deductions, and individuals are given a financial incentive to donate to and support religious organizations.

The true private choice doctrine discussed in Mueller has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2002, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. In Zelman, The court stated that “…our jurisprudence with respect to true private choice programs has remained consistent and unbroken. Three times we have confronted Establishment Clause challenges to neutral government programs that provide aid directly to a broad class of individuals, who, in turn, direct the aid to religious schools or institutions of their own choosing. Three times we have rejected such challenges.”

In his dissent to Zelman, Justice Stevens argues that “the voluntary character of the private choice to prefer a parochial education over an education in the public school system seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government’s choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible.”

The private choice doctrine attempts to distinguish tax exemptions from government expenditures. However, even Justice Rehnquist admitted that those tax exemptions lead to the same effect that would arise if a direct government subsidy were provided. The only difference is that individuals are given the ability to dictate state expenditures based on their private decisions.

The government’s provision of a tax deduction for a donation to a religious organizations is financially equivalent to a government’s provision of a direct financial subsidy to that same organization. By refunding $35 for every $100 that an individual gives to his church, the government is essentially contributing $35 to that church for every $65 donated by the individual. By refusing to collect $10,000 in property taxes from a church that the it would otherwise collect from another tenant, the government is giving $10,000 to the Church to spend that the Church would not otherwise have. It is thus clear that the aid that the government is providing to religious organizations through tax incentives is economic in nature, and is functionally equivalent to the provision of direct subsidies.

B. Do tax exemptions for religious organizations establish a state religion?
“the resulting relationship between the government and religious authority”

In the Walz opinion, Justice Burger argued that “nothing in this national attitude toward religious tolerance and two centuries of uninterrupted freedom has given the remotest sign of leading to an established church or religion…”. The Court reasoned that the state law challenged in Walz did not single out any particular religion, and therefore the “federal or state grants of tax exemptions to churches were not a violation of the Religion Clauses of the first amendment.”

I submit that the majority in Walz is incorrect in arguing that the United States does not have an established religion because of tax subsidies. The United States government is subsidizing religious organizations with billions of dollars of taxpayer money. The government is giving far greater amounts of funds to certain religions because those religions already have greater numbers of practicing members who donate more money.

The court in Zelman affirmed the reasoning that “We would be loath to adopt a rule grounding the constitutionality of a facially neutral law on annual reports reciting the extent to which various classes of private citizens claimed benefits under the law.” To me, it would not be loath, but diligent to determine where money that would otherwise be in State coffers is being distributed to.

Donations to religious organizations accounted for approximately 35% of total donations in 2004 (down from 53% in 1985) . They account for between 45% and 53% of total household giving. It is estimated that households alone gave $83 billion to religious organizations in 2002 . If those households deducted those donations at a 35% deduction rate, it could amount to approximately $29 billion dollars in personal income tax deductions. That’s $29 billion dollars of funds going to religious organizations that would otherwise be in the hands of the government, or in the hands of other charitable organizations. Of the estimated $83 Billion, approximately $60 billion went to Protestant organizations (72%), $9 billion to Catholic organizations (11%), $3 billion to Jewish organizations (3.5%), $3 billion to non-denominational religious organizations (3.5%), $2 billion to LDS organizations (2.4%), and $600 million to Islamic organizations (0.7%).

The government has established Christianity as the religion in America via these exemptions. The figures above show that 72% of household donations are given to Protestant churches and 11% to Catholic churches. Billions of tax dollars that would be in government coffers if these tax deductions did not exist are being funneled to Christianity, allowing it to claim its role as the dominant religion in America.
The major exception to this is in Utah, where the Latter Day Saints Church is the established religion. Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the LDS church receives in government subsidies through tax exemptions are being funneled in to it in Utah, where the church is headquartered. This allows the church to maintain its power in that State, and have an abundance of control over state law.

In his dissent, Justice Douglas reframes the question presented in the Walz case. “The question in this case is whether believers organized in church groups can be made exempt from real estate taxes, merely because they are believers, while non-believers, whether organized or not, must pay the real estate taxes.” He argued that one of the best ways to establish one or more religions is to subsidize them with a tax exemption. He stated “government may not provide or finance worship because of the Establishment Clause any more than it may single out ‘atheistic’ or ‘agnostic’ centers or groups and create or finance them.” He concluded that the New York state-property-tax exemption treated believers and nonbelievers differently because of the articles of their faith. Since the Establishment Clause was intended to keep the government neutral not only between sects, but between believers and nonbelievers as well, he found the exemption to be unconstitutional.

The majority in Walz argued that by removing tax exemptions, the role of government’s involvement in religion would be expanded, because it would give rise to tax valuation of church property, tax liens, tax foreclosures and the conflicts that would follow. It argued that there is less involvement between church and state in foregoing taxation than there would be if the state collected taxes.

I would argue that if the government treated churches as any other private, mutual benefit non-profit, such as a country club, which does not receive tax exempt status, the involvement would be similar to what it is currently. There is no movement arguing that the government has too much involvement in taxing country clubs, and similarly there would not be too much involvement if the government taxed religious organizations, or collected taxes from donations thereto. Although the right of free exercise to join country clubs is not protected under the religion clauses, that right is protected under freedom of association. Yet there is no movement arguing that individuals’ right to freedom of association is hampered by the fact that their country club must pay taxes.

If a church cannot pay its taxes and faces a foreclosure, then that church does not have enough financial support from its members, and should be allowed to fail like any organization that is unable to raise revenue. Enforcing tax subsidies requires a lot of government involvement, including monitoring and registering religious organizations so that they maintain their tax exempt status, and distributing tax refunds to individuals who make donations to religious organizations. The amount of government entanglement necessary to tax religious organizations would not be significantly different from the amount of entanglement under the current system.

Under the current state of tax exemptions, the state is supporting one religion with billions of dollars, and prioritizing its financial subsidies to other religions based on the relative wealth of individuals who belong to those religions and how much money those individuals contribute. Through these tax exemptions, the law has established Christianity as the American religion, and has propped up religion in America.

C. Are religious organizations beneficial to society?
“the character and purposes of the institutions that are benefitted”

In Walz, the majority justified tax exemptions for religious organizations because the State considers religious organizations to be “beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life”. In his concurrence, Justice Brennan argued that tax exemptions for religious organizations served to carry out secular purposes and not “essentially religious purposes.” He claimed that the state encourages religious activities because religious organizations contribute to the diversity of the Nation, and that there is no non-religious substitute for religion. Essentially, he believed that religion is a good thing, and therefore that it is justifiable for the state to support it.

In his dissent, Douglas refutes Justice Brennan’s argument that religious organizations perform many secular purposes by arguing that a ‘church qua nonprofit charitable organization’ is so intertwined with the ‘church qua church’ that the welfare activities it undertakes may in fact “merely be a phase of sectarian activity.” “Its sectarian faith sets it apart from all others and makes it difficult to equate its constituency with the general public. The extent that its facilities are open to all may only indicate the nature of its proselytism.” In other words, religious organizations may undertake in beneficial secular activities, but the root of those activities is entrenched in the perpetuation of the religion and its religious dogma. He writes: “…Subsidies either through direct grant or tax exemption for sectarian causes, whether carried on by a church qua church or by church qua welfare agency, must be treated differently” from subsidies for secular public welfare institutions.

The majority and concurring writers in Walz tended to operate under the assumption that religion is in fact good for society. However, It is the same religious organizations that claim to be authorities on morality that made extreme efforts, and succeeded, in supporting the cause to convince a majority of Californians to vote for a law that limits the rights of a minority of individuals in Californian society. Based on religion’s effect on Proposition 8, it is apparent that religion may not in fact be good for society. Although some religious organizations may have actually been against Proposition 8, the facts indicate that the majority of religious activity attempted to support the Proposition.

Proposition 8 exposes some of the negative influences that religion has on society, but it only represents the tip of the iceberg. Many religious organizations make efforts to subvert science, enforce outdated and unrealistic moral viewpoints, and in extreme cases provide refuge for sexual deviants or even terrorists.

Although many religions may perform altruistic secular services, Justice Douglas makes a strong argument that many of those services are simply used as a method of proselytizing. Religions have self-preservation as their foremost goal, which is why they have been able to flourish for thousands of years. Part of maintaining their power involves gaining public support, which they do by performing altruistic acts. These same altruistic acts could be performed by secular organizations, or even by organizations like the Red Cross, which are affiliated with religious organizations, but are not formed for religious purposes. Non-religious services performed by religious organizations could be performed by these secular, religiously affiliated organizations.

Religion is becoming more and more irrelevant as science progresses, and the tenets of religious dogma are continuously being attacked for their lack of a basis in reality. Richard Dawkins’s 2006 best seller The God Delusion makes a strong case against the primary tenet held by most religions, that of the existence of an invisible, all-powerful god. Religions may have represented a stepping stone in the advancement of human civilization, but science has advanced to a point in which humans no longer need to resort to the supernatural to explain earthly phenomena. The existence of tax exemptions allows religious organizations to flourish, and prevents the advancement of viewpoints that can be legitimately supported by scientific knowledge.

The government should not be directly or indirectly supporting religious organizations with taxpayer dollars under the guise that they are promoting the public welfare. By subsidizing religion via tax exemptions, the government is prioritizing religious belief over atheistic or agnostic belief. Although atheists and agnostics could organize atheistic religions that also receive tax exemptions, this is antithetical to the beliefs of many atheists, who would not want to equate themselves with religious organizations. Atheist organizations do not have the ability that religious organizations do to convince members to donate to them in return for receiving advantages in the afterlife. They have less ability than religious organizations do to proselytize and gain more donations, as most religious doctrines are designed to recruit non-believers under a theory of future salvation, whereas the precepts of atheistic beliefs are much more difficult to use as a recruitment tool. It is thus apparent that atheist and agnostic beliefs are disadvantaged by the organizational structure that federal law demands in order to receive tax breaks.

Attitudes towards religion are increasingly swaying in favor of anti-religious sentiment. A recent study found that only 75% of Americans call themselves Christian, compared to 86% in 1990. The only remaining stronghold is in the evangelical religious sector, which has actually risen in popularity from 200,000 individuals claiming to be evangelicals in 1999 to 8,000,000 in 2009. This is probably attributable to the fact that religion is increasingly having to resort to fundamentalism in order to survive, as fundamentalist religions are better able to fight against secular, external influences. It is still likely that religion will continue to flourish, however, so long as the government is supporting it with tax exemptions.

III SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

Although it is important that individuals have the right to choose their religion, it is also important that individuals have the right to not choose any religion. The government prioritizes religious beliefs by giving religious organizations tax exemptions, dispensing a disproportionate amount of funds to Christian organizations, and funding other religions based on the number and relative wealth of their members. These actions have led establishment of a state religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the first amendment.

The influence of religious institutions in the passage of Proposition 8 should give America a wakeup call. Religious organizations do not benefit the public, but rather serve their own interests, impede civil rights, and stifle scientific advancement. They should be treated as mutual benefit organizations that serve only their members, not as public benefit ones that serve society as a whole.

Accordingly, the law should not allow religious organizations to receive tax exempt status. Charitable organizations should be distinct from religious ones, and should be monitored to ensure that their actions are charitable and not religious in nature. Individuals and corporations should not be able to receive tax deductions for their donations to religious organizations. Finally, churches should be forced to pay property taxes like any other owner of property, and should face the same consequences for nonpayment.