The Rules Don’t Apply to Me

Last month, Senator Chuck Grassley asked six notorious preachers of the prosperity gospel to account for some highly questionable expenditures, in light of their ministries’ non-profit status. So far, it seems that only one of the six, Joyce Meyer, has complied. Three others – Benny Hinn, Paula White, and Kenneth Copeland – have yet to respond. Now the remaining two, Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long, have announced that they will not cooperate.

The letter from Dollar’s attorney expresses concern about giving documents to the government, explaining such action could trample on the constitutional rights of people to practice religious beliefs without government interference.

…It went on to say, “… we believe that the religious doctrine and practices of a church should not be held out for the world to evaluate as a result of responding to Congressional inquiries.”

…A written response from Long’s attorney says Grassley’s request… “clearly disregards the privacy protections of the Church under law and appears to cross the line of Constitutional guarantees for churches.”

Although the answer to this should already be obvious, notwithstanding these ministries’ furious attempts to fog the issue, I’ll say it again: in the United States, tax exemption is not a right, it is a privilege. The government grants this privilege to certain groups in exchange for them meeting a particular set of rules. To ensure that these rules are being complied with and that this privilege is not being abused, the government has every right to demand high standards of accountability and transparency from those who receive it. The First Amendment protects freedom of conscience and belief, but it does not grant blanket exemptions from generally applicable laws to any group that declares itself religious. It also does not grant any group the right to operate in secrecy, free of scrutiny or accountability.

If these wealthy prosperity preachers continue to defy the Senate, I hope the government seeks all legal means of redress, including subpoenas and IRS investigations. So far, these individuals have acted very much as if they had something to hide, and were seeking to shield their questionable conduct from scrutiny by pulling a cloak of god-belief over it. It should be little surprise that corruption always flourishes best in the dark.

In this, Dollar and Long are just the latest in a long line of pious scoundrels who act as if their faith grants them a special exception from the rules everyone else must follow. The first and foremost recent example is, of course, Kent Hovind – the young-earth creationist, Christian theme-park owner, and tax protestor who claimed that he had no obligation to pay income tax because all his belongings were the property of God. Needless to say, the government was not impressed by this argument. After years of stalling and legal buffoonery, Hovind was finally convicted of multiple counts of tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in federal prison.

This same principle has also reared its head in my home state of New York, where the legislature is debating a so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act“. This law would exempt believers from following laws that burden their religious exercises unless the state could meet the high standard of showing that the law advances a “compelling” state interest and is the least restrictive means possible of doing so. Governor Eliot Spitzer has supported this bill, while Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has introducted a slightly better version that would not permit religious exceptions to laws preventing discrimination or ensuring access to health care.

Nevertheless, this bill in general is a terrible idea. (The Institute for Humanist Studies gives a rundown.) There are already sufficient protections for free exercise; what we do not need is a law that gives special rights to the religious. And why should only religious belief get special exceptions? What if an atheist’s freedom is burdened by some law? Why don’t nonbelievers also get a special license to opt out of following laws that place a burden on them?

In seeking to bend over backwards to accommodate religious voters, politicians have gone too far. The religious should not enjoy any privileges not available to anyone else; they must be required to comply with the same laws as all the rest of us. It’s to be hoped that the growing “new atheism” movement, by challenging the false claim that theistic beliefs deserve any unusual respect as compared to other kinds of beliefs, will strip away the pretense that these beliefs give their holders special rights.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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