NYT: Good for Religion, Good for America, by: Mark Rienzi Churches are exempt from taxes and regulations for a reason: they provide a 'critical buffer' against the power of government.

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Good for Religion, Good for America

Mark Rienzi

Mark L. Rienzi is senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a professor of constitutional law at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.

UPDATED MAY 10, 2012, 12:21 PM

Religious exemptions are an essential part of our democracy. They provide breathing space for religious individuals and institutions to exist. They benefit all Americans, regardless of religion or lack thereof.

Consider the Quakers. Early in our history, when Quakers refused to fight in the military, they were given exemptions. Even in dire national emergencies, our early governments recognized that the state generally should not force a religious individual to violate sincerely held beliefs.

There was a surprise beneficiary of these exemptions: slaves. Because the Quakers were not forced out, they were around to lead the public charge against slavery, reminding their fellow citizens of the humanity and inherent dignity of African slaves.

Our nation has often benefited from religious individuals and institutions who were free to bring their religious perspective into the public square, whether by arguing for fair labor laws, advocating better treatment for immigrants, or providing food, shelter and health care to those in need. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and our civil rights movement often made expressly religious calls for the equal treatment of African-Americans.

As Justice Elena Kagan recently explained, religious groups provide a “critical buffer” against the power of government, and religious autonomy “has often served as a shield against oppressive civil laws.”

For centuries, we have protected that autonomy by granting religious exemptions. These exemptions range from those like tax exemption under 501(c)(3) — which provides religious nonprofit groups with the same tax status available to secular nonprofits like Harvard University — to those that give special treatment to religion, such as the “ministerial exception” which exempts religious groups from some nondiscrimination laws when picking their ministers.

Both types protect religious liberty by providing room for religious institutions to thrive with minimal government encroachment and burden. That is why federal, state and local governments have virtually always exempted churches from taxation. It is also why the Supreme Court unanimously said a religious exemption was required in the Hosanna-Tabor case. And it is why Senator Ted Kennedy co-sponsored and President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, making religious exemptions the norm under federal law.

Simply put, religious exemptions preserve religious freedom, which benefits us all.


See full article here.