Three blocks from the U.S. Capitol and just a half-block from the Cannon House Office Building sits an old Victorian townhouse from 1880 the occupants of which have long secluded themselves there virtually unnoticed. The house, known simply as C Street Center, is in fact the home and meeting place for a delegation of fundamentalist Christian Congress members, who convene there to hold prayer sessions in their free time, outside work, which lies just down the street. The group, which calls itself C Street Center after the building, claim status as a church and have thus far avoided filing public tax returns, as is usual for non-profit organizations. Thirteen ordained ministers are now pressing the IRS to revoke the center’s status as a church, however, and force them to begin filing tax returns just like every other NPO.
Already, it becomes a concern whether the association between church and state at the center is a lawful one. But which activity in fact impinges on religious freedom–the attempt on the part of the ministers to constrain the center’s church status, or the blurring of church and state in an exclusive club for lawmakers where religion is practiced?
On first thought, it seems that any attempt by the government to rein in the allowable set of criteria which constitute a religious organization would give it enough power to discriminate against religions that do not fulfill the criteria and thus force them to file public tax returns. This, in turn, might constitute religious bias on the part of the government, violating the First Amendment guarantee of religious neutrality on the part of the government. On second thought, by using such a set of criteria, the government may not be cherry-picking desirable from undesirable religions, but rather setting the standard for all religions; from this assumption, then, an organization which does not meet the criteria cannot claim to be discriminated against, since it is not considered a religious organization in the first place.
According to Peter Overby of National Public Radio, the group of clergy members cited fifteen criteria for defining a church for tax purposes, which sounds uncannily similar to the IRS Fourteen Points used for the same purpose. The ministers, some of whom undoubtedly suspect that the definition of religion has been diluted and perhaps even profaned by the goings-on at C Street, have delivered a complaint to the IRS which states, “[a]n organization whose chief activity is providing room and board to members of Congress is not a church.” A church, they argue, must be an organization which is accessible to the public, or consists of an open congregation, and which is certainly not restricted to government officials. Indeed, it seems inappropriate in a (nominally) secular state that a club operated exclusively for fundamentalist Christian Congress members deserves to be called a church, simply because they claim to be so, without having to account for their claim. Under such a premise, any organization should be allowed to claim status as a church, even when it consists solely of lawmakers, presumably for the purpose of deliberating on legislative decisions motivated by religious belief.
Is the C Street Center avoiding its public duty and blurring the boundary between church and state by claiming tax-exempt status as a church, even though it admits only lawmakers, or are the thirteen ministers who are challenging the center’s status pressuring the IRS to unfairly constrain the definition of religion? Let us know your thoughts.
National Public Radio