February 26, 2001
IRS Church Seizure is a Tragedy for Religious Liberty
February 13th marked a sad day for religious liberty in America, as the federal government took the unprecedented step of seizing a church to satisfy an alleged tax debt. Armed federal marshals forcibly removed parishioners and clergy from the Indianapolis Baptist Temple (IBT), bringing an end to years of legal challenges that ended with the Supreme Court refusing to hear an IBT appeal.
Amazingly, the tax dispute arose not over a failure to pay income taxes per se, but rather over the failure of the IBT to follow tax withholding rules. The tax code forces all employers, including churches, to act as collection agents for the IRS by presumptively withholding a portion of every employee's paycheck for federal taxes. The IBT steadfastly has refused to withhold taxes from its employees, arguing that religious beliefs prevent it from acting as an agent for a secular government agency. Two important facts have been largely overlooked in the ensuing controversy. First, the IBT (unlike most churches) also refused tax benefits available to it through registration as a tax-exempt religious organization. Second, more than 60 present and former IBT employees successfully passed IRS audits, meaning they paid in full taxes the IBT had not withheld. So the heart of the dispute really was about IBT's principled refusal to do the government's bidding. The real motivation behind the IRS seizure was not to satisfy a tax bill, but rather to set an example for any other churches that might dare to question their obligation to act as tax collectors.
The IBT tragedy is about religious liberty, not taxes. Churches should not be required to pay or withhold taxes any more than they should be given tax dollars from the government. The First amendment grants churches the absolute right to freely exercise their religious beliefs without interference from government. When tax laws force churches to act as collection agents for the IRS, this precious right is lost. The income tax represents the ultimate entanglement between churches and the government. When churches file income tax returns, the government becomes intimately familiar with their activities. Only those faiths deemed valid by IRS bureaucrats are rewarded with partial tax-exempt status. This entanglement chills true religious expression, because churches may alter their message to quell criticisms of government and avoid audits. When the government has the power to tax churches, it ultimately has the power to control them.
The state-loving media scarcely mentioned the IBT story, with brief articles predictably portraying the church as a fringe organization that avoided its taxes. This follows an established pattern of characterizing religious conservatives who protest the federal government as dangerous extremists, implicitly associated with militias and racists. Imagine the national media coverage, and resulting public outrage, if a minority church was seized over a refusal to pay taxes. Protestors supporting left-wing causes like abortion, affirmative action, environmentalism, feminism, AIDS, and animal rights consistently are shown as courageous martyrs fighting for principle against an unfeeling society and government. Conservative protestors, however, are shown as sinister bigots who selfishly refuse to follow benign laws and politically correct social rules.
The IBT story has resounded with many Americans, however. A strong undercurrent of dissent has manifested itself below the mainstream media radar, on radio talk shows and websites. My office has received hundreds of angry letters, emails, and phone calls denouncing the government's actions. People of all faiths understand that the threat to religious liberty affects all Americans. No society can remain free if it lacks strong institutions to challenge an overreaching government.