During an LGBTQ Townhall hosted by CNN on October 10, Beto O’Rourke, to his credit, gave a very honest and straightforward answer to an interesting question: Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities—should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage? Watch his response below:
He answers, “Yes. [Applause] There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights, and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so, as president, we are going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing on the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
While there are many directions I could go with this, I want to say a quick word about why churches are given tax-exemption in the first place and why it is important that they maintain this privilege.
Why Should Churches Receive Tax-Exempt Status?
First, I think giving churches tax-exempt status is the natural outworking of a proper understanding of separation of church and state. The power to tax is ultimately the power to control through coercion, which would give the government leverage over controlling what churches teach. I (and I would venture to guess most Americans) would agree that governments shouldn’t dictate what churches should teach. This upholds the First Amendment principles of the government not establishing a religion or prohibiting their free exercise through picking winners and losers (which churches/beliefs the government likes or dislikes). We have to remember that religious liberty was not some right invented out of thin air but was merely a recognition of what is obvious: that government cannot control or coerce what we believe. It has no jurisdiction over our conscience and what we believe is right. A government that presumes the right to coerce belief can (and has been) turned against those seeking to use its power for their own means.
Second, it’s been generally recognized throughout our country’s history of the good that churches, religious organizations, nonprofits, and charities have played in society, both morally and socially. Giving them exemption from taxes allows them to keep more resources in achieving their missions to help those that governments sometimes aren’t able to reach.
Third, churches, under the law, are usually not considered places of public accommodation. This recognizes the sacredness of the space in which people come together to worship, even if things are taught there that you fundamentally disagree with.
Of course, I believe that upholding God’s purposes in human sexuality with kindness is the greatest act of love that churches can show towards those who identify as LGBTQ and towards those Christians who fight against same-sex sexual attractions. On the other hand, there will be those like Beto O’Rourke who will believe that doing so compromises fundamental human and civil rights.
Balancing Religious Liberty with LGBTQ rights
So who’s right? Is upholding God’s purposes in human sexuality inherently discriminatory?
This will depend on how you define discrimination. If you use one dictionary definition (“recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another”), then yes. God’s view of human sexuality makes many distinctions, the most fundamental being the difference between male and female and their respective purposes.
However, if the other definition used (“the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex”), this is a different story and much more complicated.
Many seek to include sexual orientation in federal civil rights legislation through bills like the Equality Act and the Do No Harm Act. Such a view, however, presumes that sexual orientation is as fundamental to the human person as their race, age, sex, etc. Interestingly, this is a belief that has only emerged in the last 100 years or so. We’ve seen that a lot of the language that has been used concerning racial discrimination is now being applied to sexual orientation. As such, churches which hold to orthodox views on sexuality are now being looked upon as breeding grounds of discrimination and hatred against an intrinsic aspect of the human person, something which most people believe that government has a vested interest in preventing. Thus, we would have a tension between religious liberty and civil rights.
Of course, I believe this notion of “orientation-as-ontology” (the view that sexual orientation is a fundamental to the nature of the human person) is completely wrong-headed, but that’s another discussion for another post. Suffice it to say, for now, that this is a very tricky issue. Most Christians don’t want people who identify as LGBTQ to suffer invidious and mean-spirited discrimination in society. Yet, we also want to be able run our businesses, our church, our colleges, our charities, and live our lives in accordance with what God teaches about human sexuality, which is ultimately motivated out of love for God and love of our fellow human beings. Yet, so long as this orientation-as-ontology view pervades in our culture, there will be this tension between religious liberty and civil rights.
Part of the reason this is coming as a point of contention now is because society has morally shifted in rejecting an orthodox Biblical view of human sexuality. Once the Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage, it created an instability between newly recognized political rights to same-sex marriage and long held political rights in freedom of speech/conscience/religion that held fundamentally different beliefs about marriage.
I predict that we will either have to reject this view of orientation-as-ontology or the pendulum will inevitably swing towards one side of this debate, more than likely upholding civil rights for LGBTQ individuals at the expense of religious liberty.
It’s yet to be seen how this will sort itself out in the end. Thankfully, as a Christian, my hope is not in either of these outcomes, but in my eternal security found in Christ and his kingdom. Nevertheless, I will continue to try and do my part to uphold religious liberty.