Monday, March 8, 2010

C Street Curch?

Both the New York Times and NPR had stories last week about the controversial C Street Center townhouse, pictured to the left. The townhouse is located in Washington D.C. approximately three blocks from the Capitol and is host to a contingent of fundamentalist Christian members of Congress. It is affiliated with the Fellowship and provides a place for Congressmen to live and pray together for a minimal fee of $600 per month for a private room. You may remember the Fellowship from their heavy involvement in the National Prayer Breakfast, an event which every president since Dwight Eisenhower has attended. The C Street Center hosts several functions that are smaller than the National Prayer Breakfast, but serve largely the same purpose. These include Wednesday prayer breakfasts for United States Senators and Tuesday night dinners for Members of Congress and other Fellowship associates.

The C Street Center was granted tax exempt status as a church under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which states that “corporations organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes” are entitled to tax exemption. Tax exempt status remained formally unchallenged until last year, when several C Street tenants were embroiled in marital infidelity scandals that focused a public eye on the Center. As a result, the Office of Tax and Revenue for Washington D.C. determined that portions of the townhouse were being rented out for private residential purposes and the exemption was partially revoked so that only 34% is now tax exempt.

Two weeks ago, a group of Ohio pastors filed a complaint about the partial tax exemption of the C Street Center. The pastors are concerned that the Center is not a church and that by masquerading as a church, the Center “poses a threat to the integrity and legitimacy of all religious organizations in the United States.” In an interview with NPR, Pastor Eric Williams, a leader of the Ohio ministers, stated, “Is there public worship? Is it open to the public? Are there trained leaders who serve the church? C Street really has none of those marks that make it a church."

This case raises constitutional issues similar to those raised by Bob Jones University versus United States in 1982. The IRS revoked Section 501(c)(3) tax exempt status of Bob Jones University, a private Christian University, because it denied admission to students involved in interracial relationships. Bob Jones University challenged in court, holding that the IRS violated the University’s rights under the religion Clauses of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the IRS had the right to revoke the tax exempt status of organizations that are contrary to established public policy.

The C Street Center case is slightly more complicated because the pastors are concerned with separation of church and state, not freedom of conscience. The Ohio pastors believe, and I agree, that the Fellowship is using the C Street Center to influence Congressmen and other public officials. If the IRS revokes Section 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, the C Street Center will have to file tax returns that reveal its sources of income. This will make it possible to determine whether private money from the Fellowship is being filtered into the Center. If the IRS investigation is brought to court, the C Street Center could argue freedom of conscience by claiming that the townhouse is actually a place of worship for its residents. This argument puts the state in the sticky position of defining religion, which can lead to excessive entanglement. Clearly, the C Street Center tax exemption raises a lot of constitutional issues.


Abby P said...

This case regarding the C Street Center, as was displayed by the post, certainly does raise a number of constitutional issues. This case does parallel that of the Bob Jones University case, which was discussed at length in class. This particular case, however, is a bit more complicated in that the C Street Center seems to have more political clout and power than that of Bob Jones University. Also this case once again brings up the question of whether or not this center qualifies as a charitable organization in order to receive tax exemption in the first place. Also one could go even further and raise the question of whether or not churches should have tax exempt status at all. As was discussed in class, one could make the argument that by giving churches tax exempt status, this proves to be an excessive entanglement of church and state. In this particular case it is apparent that there are a myriad of constitutional questions that must be addressed. Also one can certainly see that although the case regarding Bob Jones University was heard a number of years ago, many of the questions that were addressed in that case are still relevant in cases today.

David I said...

Like Abby mentions in her comments, it is clear that many of the issues that were brought up in the Bob Jones case are still relevant today, nearly thirty years after the ruling. Like I argued in class last week, I do not think that any religious institutions should receive tax exempt status. It creates an excessive entanglement of religion and the state, and should not be allowed. I strongly believe that in this case, where the C Street Centerhas received this exemption. By housing politicians within its rooms, I feel as though the church that is funding the Center is putting itself into the political debate. The political leaders who live there may be swayed to decide on issues based on what the religion believes. This should not be allowed, and the politicians should take it upon themselves to find a new place to live. This center clearly entangles itself with political leaders, and should not be given exempt status from taxes.

Rob K said...

While I agree with much of what has already been said, specifically David's argument that no religious organization should be given tax exempt status, I believe that a lot is being made of the fact that politicians may be swayed by the teachings of this religion. Isn't that kind of how we all live - somewhat in accord with religious moral teaching - regardless of the religion at the root? Don't most politicians vote based on religious ideas and beliefs for many of the important and divisive social issues in our society? Abortion, same-sex marriage... Many people take the stance they do on these issues because of religious moral teachings, politicians included. In my opinion, this is is acceptable and more often than not beneficial, as long as everyone is still afforded free exercise and no official religion is established. I don't think the C Street Center should receive tax-exempt status and I think that politicians probably shouldn't live there, but asserting that politicians should never be influenced by their religious beliefs is a pretty unrealistic ideal.

Shannon H. said...

My issue with this is that the C Street Center is almost masquerading as a church. I’m not sure of the exact policies here, but the article mentions that public worship is a requirement for being classified as a church and I would agree that an organization that does not welcome anyone wishing to worship with them should not be granted tax-exempt status. It is a bit worrying to see how entangled this organization is with these members of Congress, and although I don’t think that is unconstitutional, I do think it is something those Congressmen’s constituents should take note of.

LaurenL said...

I agree that tax-exempt status being granted to churches is a sticky situation, as it opens the door for excessive entanglement. I also think that David brings up an interesting point by saying that religious institutions should not receive tax exemptions. I found myself wondering just exactly where the monthly fee of $600 goes. The C Street Center seems to be more of a hotel, or as the articles mentioned, a club, rather than a church. Parishoners do not pay a fee when they attend their mass services, and it just seems a bit funny to me that the senators pay such a hefty monthly fee of $600 to attend their "church."