Balancing Liberty and Law: Religious Nonprofits in America and Britain
The upshot of this timing, however, was that TDN played a definitive role in helping the Charity Commission to decide how it would interpret these new laws in the future, including the expansion of the idea of "deity" to include immanent or non-supernatural principles or beings (which has opened the door to pantheism, animism, and non-theistic spiritualities as well as monistic, monotheistic, and polytheistic religious traditions). The definitions held by the Charity Commission, and the legal precedent that it sets with its decisions to register certain religious charities, technically only influence English Charity Law and cannot necessarily be extended to other aspects of the law in the United Kingdom, let alone beyond its borders to the United States. Yet because of the prominent role that the CC plays in regulating and promoting public welfare organizations, its decisions do carry weight in British society akin to "unofficially official" recognition. Several major media outlets in Britain—including the BBC, the Telegrap,h and the Times—reported the news of TDN's success by claiming that Druidry had been "officially recognized" as a religion. While this isn't precisely true, the impact of the CC's decision does have some important ramifications.
Churches and Religious Nonprofits in the U.S.
Because of its history of revolution and independence not only from the crown but also from the church of England, the United States has carved out a special place for religion and religious freedom within its laws. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . ." and this provision effectively limits the extent to which the federal government has the power to regulate religious institutions. The oft-cited "wall of separation between church and State," attributed to Thomas Jefferson and used repeatedly over the past two hundred years to set legal precedents for religious liberty, means that in America it is often far easier for a group to function as a church than as any other kind of nonprofit organization. But let's back up for a moment.
Unlike in the United Kingdom where the Charity Commission plays a significant role in determining charity status across the entire country, the United States has no overarching regulatory body to oversee nonprofit and tax-exemption laws on a national scale. Instead, this task is divided between state governments on a local level, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at the federal level. The result, as one might expect, is a heady mishmash of complicated laws and dense legal jargon meant to cover all possible eventualities, and which can vary from state to state. Thus, the terms "nonprofit" and "tax-exempt" are not synonymous. While the IRS determines tax-exemption based on federal law, state laws regulate an organization's nonprofit status according to its founding documents and organizing principles. In other words, in the United States, all tax-exempt organizations must be nonprofits (as determined at the state level), but not all nonprofits are automatically tax-exempt (according to federal law).
Although gaining nonprofit tax-exemption sounds incredibly complicated, organizations looking to apply for this status can simplify the process by taking a "top-down" approach to the legal requirements. Ensuring first that they fulfill all the stipulations of IRS tax law (as detailed in Federal Form 1023), groups can then refine their company constitution and by-laws according to the needs of the particular state in which they are located. According to federal law, tax-exempt organizations can be classified under any of the numerous categories covered by 501(c) section of the Internal Revenue Code. As with English nonprofit law, qualifying organizations include not only religious organizations, but also educational and social welfare groups, recreational clubs, agricultural organizations, beneficiary societies, and so on. More specifically, religious organizations fall under section 501(c)(3) of the IRC, and in order to qualify for tax-exemption they must limit their purposes and activities to only those permitted under that section.
Alison Leigh Lilly lives, moves, and practices her Druidry in the lovely, thrice-rivered city of Pittsburgh, where she dwells on the edge of a wooded park with her partner, her cat, her pet frogs, and her houseplants. Her spiritual studies revolve around a fascination with theology, peace-making, ecology, Celtic mythology, and ritual aesthetics, as well as a love of song and a great deal of poetry. She writes frequently on these themes on her blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, as well as contributing essays to the PNC group-project Pagan+Politics and to publications such as Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality.