Sunday, April 4, 2010

Atheists' Collection Plate, With Religious Inspiration

            This article, discusses an aspect of religion that often encroaches in on the public sphere: that of charitable work.  The article centers around an atheist named Dale McGowan.  McGowan, in May 2005, decided to take his family to church at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis.  He did so because, although he did not hold religious convictions, he wanted his children to gain what he termed “religious literacy.”  While attending several services, McGowan did not garner religious beliefs; however, he did realize that churches did more than preach to their members.  He ascertained that churches are incredibly philanthropic organizations.  The church that he attended, for instance, held a weekly dinner for the homeless.  Congregations throughout the country hold similar activities as well as collect offering money to help those in need.  By witnessing such examples of charity, McGowan decided to emulate the church in its manner of giving by starting, in essence, an atheist’s collection plate.  Five years later, McGowan’s initial idea has taken the form of a nonprofit organization that receives donations from fellow atheists and distributes them to organizations in various fields of need.  The name of this organization is the Foundation Beyond Belief.  McGowan, although clearly not a promoter of religion, does believe that churches, through their works of charity, do help to aid those in need.  McGowan wants atheists, too, to be known for more than their unbelief.  “One of the things I’m trying to get past, is a dismissive attitude about why religious people give – that it’s out of fear, a fear of God or a fear of damnation.  It’s out of a human need.  And we secular humanists have to have enough self-confidence to look at what they’re doing right as well as wrong,” McGowan said.

            When reading this article I felt that it raised some poignant questions that related to our class discussions and readings throughout the semester.  When looking at the case of Bob Jones University v. United States, the Court decided that Bob Jones University could lose its tax exempt status due to the fact that it would not admit individuals engaged in interracial relationships.  The discussion of this case in class led us to further inquiries concerning the tax-exempt status of churches and governmental aid to faith-based initiatives.  I think that this article, once again, takes a look at the charitable nature of churches; and it allows us to go back to the question of whether or not churches should receive tax-exempt status.  One might also ask whether or not the tax-exempt status of churches violates the Lemon test, thereby violating the Establishment Clause.  Does this tax-exempt status have a secular purpose?  Does this tax-exempt status neither advance nor inhibit religion?  Lastly, does the tax-exempt status of churches create an excessive entanglement of church and state?

            When initially analyzing the tax-exempt status of churches during our discussion of the Bob Jones University case I thought that providing churches with tax-exempt status was a violation of the Establishment Clause.  I personally believed that this created an excessive entanglement of church and state.  Now, however, after reading more cases, and after looking at this article, I have changed my position.  In the article, McGowan feels incredibly strongly about the charitable work done by churches.  Churches do provide aid to the community in a myriad of ways; therefore, I do not believe that their tax-exempt status is in violation of the Establishment Clause.  Instead, the government is merely treating them neutrally.  The government grants charitable organizations tax-exempt status.  Personally, I think that if an organization meets the criteria necessary to be deemed a charitable organization, then it should be granted tax-exempt status.  It should not matter whether the organization is religiously affiliated or not.  I would treat this case of tax-exempt status similarly to that of the Rosenberger case.  In Rosenberger, the religiously affiliated publication, Wide Awake, at UVA was able to utilize school funds, because it met all of the neutral criteria.  The tax-exempt status of churches seems to mirror the Rosenberger case.  This article certainly brought to light the fact that churches do more than proselytize.  The charitable work of churches does encroach in on the public sphere; however, ultimately I think that allowing churches to be tax-exempt does have a secular purpose; it does not directly advance religion and it does not inhibit religion; and it does not create an excessive entanglement of church and state.

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