In support of the Feds - Indianapolis Baptist Temple vs IRS

By Lewis J. Goldberg
web posted March 6, 2000

Back in the early 1980's, President Reagan signed into law a bill which required that 501c(3)(non-profit) corporations which pay wages to employees must pay the matching FICA. They had previously been exempted from this requirement, as it was felt that it was 'not right' to tax a church. Indianapolis Baptist Temple (IBT) has refused to pay its share of their employees' Social Security taxes, though all employees have since paid theirs. The IRS claims over five million dollars in back-taxes, from 1987 to the present, must be paid or their property will be seized on April 10. On the face, this seems to be a case of oppressive government smashing our religious liberty. Dig a little deeper, and one finds that it is merely a case of hypocrisy and pride on the part of the church.

The non-profit status is a vehicle ripe for abuse by unscrupulous organizations. It was necessary to close the FICA loophole to prevent such abuse. While the IBT claims that there is precedent for not 'taxing God,' one has to view those precedents in their historical context in relation to the traditional church function and how that function (and tax law) has changed over the years. The purpose of this article is not to say that the government isn't a threat to religious liberty (because it is,) but an attempt to shed an otherwise unseen light onto a situation that will neither strengthen churches in America, nor make the IRS any more powerful than it already is.

An article written by Dr. Greg Dixon, Pastor of IBT, states numerous examples in colonial times where taxation of religious institutions was fought on the grounds of it not being in keeping with Biblical principles. In an era when churches were truly non-profit organizations, the time of everyone involved in stewardship of the church was donated. The pastor received just enough from his congregation to have a roof and three meals, or he had a livelihood outside the church. As our new republic was founded and grew, churches began to have more of an outreach in their ministry, which required more money and time of their members, yet the charitable aspect of church service lived on. Religious institutions lived up to their Biblical admonition to "feed my (Jesus') sheep," and the amicable relationship between church and state in America was maintained.

Now, enter the 20th century. Churches have become more than anyone could have envisioned. Some of the expansion of church functions is due simply to the scale of the world in which they operate. Some is just worldly arrogance masquerading as Christ. Today, churches run TV stations; sell video tapes and CD's; hold rock concerts; promote certain home-based businesses; hold investment property (as IBT does;) provide financial management counseling and materials; and a host of other activities that have a distinctly secular flavor. One of the most secular of practices is the hiring and payment of full-time employees.

In a world filled with religious institutions that behave like secular corporations, it is no wonder that tax laws finally caught up to them. Most medical centers have a cadre of senior citizen volunteers to perform hospitality and minor administrative functions, yet most churches today can't get by without a full-time paid secretary. Hiring and paying employees is a secular activity; there is nothing 'churchy' about it. Jesus did not tell his disciples to 'Come, follow me and I'll tell you about my great health plan and 401(k)!"

Is it inherently wrong to have paid employees in a church or to sell tapes and etc. as listed above? No, but to do so invites the consequences that come with them, FICA notwithstanding. If the brethren at Church of the Holy WingDing decide to pool their collective automotive engineering expertise to build cars on a piece of idle church property and sell them to raise funds for the church, do they get to ignore safety-belt and airbag legislation? On a more realistic note, if a church constructs a new building, are they able to disregard local building codes? We see that churches are, indeed, subject to the law of the land when the church's activities interface with regulated practices. Employment is no different, and most churches acknowledge that.

There are various ways a church can act as an employer. The most obvious is to pay wages, withhold taxes and FICA, and pay the employer's share of FICA, as most businesses do. The Catholic Church treats its priests like independent contractors, and requires that they pay their own taxes and FICA. Law-abiding churches have no quarrel or conflict with the feds because they keep their noses clean. The 'crisis' of religious freedom that Pastor Dixon fears arises from the flaunting of the law, which is hardly Biblical teaching.

Pastor Dixon uses copious amounts of scriptural references to justify his position that churches don't need to pay taxes. Suspiciously absent is any passage from Paul's letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, which admonishes the faithful to submit themselves unto the authorities and to receive whatever punishment is meted out. This section of the New Testament is used extensively by fundamentalist Christians to justify capital punishment, yet apparently is not recognized by the IBT as an admonition to 'shut up and pay the taxes.'

The IBT has had over a decade to comply with the law, yet has chosen not to. To acuse the feds of a conspiracy against religion in this case is irresponsible, and takes away from the legitimate causes the Christian community suffers at the hands of oppressive government. If (rather, when) the feds win this case, nothing new will be proven. The law enacted in January, 1984, to require non-profits to pay FICA for its employees will simply stand as it has for 16 years and life in America's churches will go on as it always has...except for the parishioners of IBT, who are being led by a false prophet who fancies himself above the law.

Some are proclaiming this potential stand-off between the IRS and IBT as WACO II. Let us pray that this is not the case. All Christendom will suffer if this event is characterized as representing the views of mainstream Christian America. Christians already have a poor enough representation in the media without a genuine example of bad religion to parade before the masses. Pastor Dixon is admonished to get out his Bible and read the parts that don't agree with his philosophy before claiming to represent the best interests of all Christians.

Lewis J. Goldberg is the webmaster of PlanetGoldberg and a frequent contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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