Atheist Isn’t Allowed to Give Invocation at County Meeting Because He’s Not Part of a Tax-Exempt Religious Institution

It was last summer when two young atheists tried to put a stop to the Christian prayers being recited at meetings of the Hamilton County Commissioners (in Tennessee) by filing a lawsuit:

A U.S. District Judge decided to let the prayers continue while the case was still not settled, and those atheists, Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, aren’t done yet:

A federal appeals court will hear arguments on April 24 on whether the Hamilton County commissioners must stop allowing invocations at public meetings.

Brandon Jones (left) and Tommy Coleman (Dan Henry – Chattanooga Times Free Press)

Hopefully, those judges have the courage to put a stop to this madness; the law is certainly on the atheists’ side here.

In the meantime, Tommy Coleman — an ordained minister, though he’s an atheist — has requested a slot to give one of the invocations. He asked back in November, but the County keeps telling him no… because he’s not affiliated with a church:

Chris Hixson, legislative administrator for the Hamilton County Commission, manages the invocation list. She said Thursday that, generally, “everyone who has requested has been scheduled.” But that’s not the case for Coleman.

Hixson said she received Coleman’s request, but she was waiting for an OK to add him to the list.

County invocation policy — which didn’t exist until Coleman and Brandon Jones filed their lawsuit in June — states that those wishing to give the invocation must have tax-exempt status as a religious institution.

But because Coleman has no church or church property, he has no reason to be shielded from tax.

In the meantime, 32 clergy members from various Protestant churches — and clergy of the Baha’i, Russian Orthodox and other faiths — have been scheduled to give the invocation for commission meetings through most of October.

So the County has a policy that basically allows everybody but atheists to give an invocation.

If that doesn’t help his case, I don’t know what will.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Rain

    County invocation policy — which didn’t exist until Coleman and Brandon Jones filed their lawsuit in June…

    That would probably clue the judge in. Obviously they aren’t going to be pushed around by no stinkin atheists. Any judge can see through it. Hopefully this will be another “breathtaking inanity” moment in judicial history.

    • Artor

      Unfortunately, the chance of the judge him/herself also being a member of the Invisible Sky-Daddy Club is painfully high.

  • Goldstein Squad Member

    So Tommy is a minister. He must think atheism is a religion, when that serves his purposes.
    Notice how atheists always want it both ways.

    • Golfie98

      I would have thought it possible that he was ordained as a minister and subsequently realised it was all nonsense and became an atheist. So he is still an ordained minister but also an atheist.

      That would make you and your attempted snide comment look extremely foolish.

    • Jasper

      No, we don’t. Under the law, discrimination based on religion includes discrimination based on not having a religion.

      It’d be like discriminating based on what people want to have for lunch, and one can discriminate against someone who decides to not have lunch.

      That doesn’t make “having lunch” equivalent to “not having lunch”

    • Beutelratti

      Notice how you should look up the various non-religious meanings of the word “minister”.

      Notice how a lot of theists never fail to come up with faulty arguments just to have a go at atheists.

    • The Godless Monster

      If you’d stopped at your 2nd sentence I’d have been in full agreement. As it is, you’ve shot your credibility all to hell by stating that “atheists always want it both ways”.
      It’s an idiotic and immature assertion and nobody with more than two firing synapses upstairs will take you seriously..

    • Ryan Jean

      Umm, atheists don’t “want it both ways,” we want to stop having to bend over backwards for unconstitutional and unethical religious requirements put on us by the regressive members of society. I’m an atheist “ordained minister” of a “tax-exempt religious institution;” in my case, that’s the Humanist Society. I probably wouldn’t have sought that status if I weren’t challenging the Army’s treatment of atheists and Humanists from within. Want to make bets over whether they’d allow me to speak, even when I meet their obviously discriminatory standards?

    • coyotenose

      Does Jesus love it when people lie to get in cheap digs? Y’know, like you?

      Or are you too dense to grasp the circumstances under which he could have become ordained?

      At any rate, when you see a very blatant act of discrimination and a Constitutional violation, your first reaction is to try to figure out a reason to attack the victim. So tell us, Goldstein Squad Member: Why do you hate the Constitution?

      • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

        I think it’s more accurate to say he hates atheists, and doesn’t mind if the constitution is ignored to keep us in our place.

        • coyotenose

          He hates people not like him more than he loves justice? Sounds like a good description.

    • http://www.facebook.com/travis.myers.102977 Travis Myers

      The church of the FSM has ordained ministers, yet it welcomes people with any type of belief, including lack of belief in a god.

  • Chris B

    I sincerely hope that Coleman’s invocation is allowed to proceed, and also that his message is a positive one. Perhaps a genuine, religion free positive message will help to convey that atheists are not evil, vindictive people and shrink the divide a little.

  • Jasper

    “those wishing to give the invocation must have tax-exempt status as a religious institution.”

    And that’s just another problem for unnecessary entanglement – the government deciding who is a religion or not.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tommy.coleman.921 Tommy Coleman

      I agree 100%.

  • C Peterson

    Easy fix. Just remove the non-profit status of religions, and all the problems go away.

    • 3lemenope

      There were, of course, a few good reasons why the practice was started in the first place. So, sure, you’ll certainly get rid of some of the problems caused by the practice by abandoning it, as you’ll be trading them in for all the problems that practice was put into place to prevent.

      • C Peterson

        Every matter of public policy involves tradeoffs. In this case, whatever problems might be caused seem small compared to the problems fixed.

        In fact, in today’s culture, I see very few problems at all from removing the tax-free status of churches. They shouldn’t be making profits in the first place, and without making any profit, they aren’t subject to taxation.

        • 3lemenope

          They shouldn’t be making profits in the first place, and without making any profit, they aren’t subject to taxation.

          Huh? They definitely should be making *income* in order to pay for their facilities and personnel. But unless non-profit status changed a whole heckuva lot since I worked for one, simply being unable to make a profit doesn’t qualify one for non-profit status. You seem to be conflating and/or confusing a whole mess of things here.

          • Sven2547

            What about a church’s business model makes it a non-profit, exactly?
            They take in money, they pay for all their expenses, and then everything else goes into the pocket of whoever owns the place, minus any charitable donations they may or may not do. Profit.

            • 3lemenope

              I’m curious, standard hyperbole aside, if you think that is an accurate presentation of the average church’s “business model”.

              • newavocation

                In most cases, churches are generally a country club and tax shelter for the rich, but without a golf course.

                • 3lemenope

                  Yes, the rhetoric is cute and all, and you get points, but what I’m asking is, are people here actually of the impression that the average church is set up to be a tax shelter? As in, it is more likely than not that, given a church, it is operating at a profit and then pocketing the difference. Not, like, they are bad people and so must be doing bad things, therefore tax shelter, but more like, hey, this is a really common practice throughout American religion and I have data to back it up!

                • Sven2547

                  Not a “tax shelter”, just a tax-free for-profit business.
                  You criticize, but I don’t see you offering a counter-argument, just a lot of “Do you really think so?” Yes, I really think so.

                • 3lemenope

                  There really is no available counterargument to bare assertion and anecdote except a request for data.

                • Sven2547

                  How about a hypothesis? Where do YOU think the money goes? What do YOU think the business model is? Where do these super-rich mega-pastors get all their money? “God”? We’d like more data too, but the powerful religion lobby would never let their finances be audited, and you seem to support that.
                  You condescend, yet you have no basis for it. You criticize, but offer no counterargument.

                • 3lemenope

                  Don’t move the goalposts. The topic is not what I might believe about where the money goes, but rather your stated belief about where it goes. You made a rather remarkable claim, and then refused to back it up, and now you’re getting testy that it got called out.

                  That having been said, I would say to your bevy of questions:

                  Most churches’ income covers their expenses, and very little else.

                  Megachurches and megapastors are not *at all* representative of the larger group at issue. The median income for senior pastors in the US is ~$80,000, which is respectable but by no means breaking the bank. The confidence intervals of the sample are such that 90% of the population of pastors can be characterized as having a salary between $55,000 — $108,000.

                  I agree that tax exemption should come ready-packaged with rigorous auditing.

                • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

                  $80K is considerably above the average income in this country. i believe jeebus said something about the wealthy getting in to heaven with difficulty. and anyway, how many poor people could be fed and clothed with that $40K that would bring the average pastor’s income down to the level of the average person? there are poor people out there living on $12K and less a year, how about some of these ministers helping them out?

                • 3lemenope

                  I agree. Nonetheless, it strikes me as unwise to submit the salaries of people-not-ourselves to prudential considerations that don’t bear upon how the salary is set. I personally think that tradespeople and people who do “dirty” jobs should be paid, in a perfect world, commensurate with the undesirability of the job. The reason this is a bad idea, and the obvious sign we don’t live in a perfect world, is that such a salary scheme would quickly make most such services too expensive for even the slightly-less-poor to afford. Pay lettuce-pickers a living wage, and say goodbye to your salads. Then we should ask ourselves how important is it for poor people to get lettuce? As a poor person, I am quite attached to my salads.

                • alconnolly

                  I do taxes. The number of income padders a pastor can take that does not count as salary (housing and other allowances) could easily double or triple that 80k take, and having done a lot of taxes, I have never seen a pastor not take advantage of the special breaks for pastors. So the odds of the salaries being much higher is almost 100% in addition where did you get that statistic?

                • C Peterson

                  What about the Mormons? What about the Catholics? These are religious organizations that have vast assets- money, real estate, art- all of which was acquired with untaxed income and which is growing in value, with no taxation. All of which can be sold without taxation on the gains. And there are certainly many megachurches that are functioning very much like traditional, for-profit businesses, making their principals quite rich. These entities are benefiting from their participation in the economy, at the expense of those who don’t share their religious views. I see that as a violation of the First Amendment.

              • Sven2547

                I generalized a bit, but I certainly don’t consider it inaccurate. Where do you think the money goes? “God”?
                My parents’ church is refreshingly honest. They have pie charts showing exactly where all that tithing money goes. 2% goes to anything that could be considered “charity”. Roughly 1/3 goes toward paying for the building, food, and other bills. 1/4 goes toward the Sunday School staff, and everything else goes to the pastor and his sons.

                • 3lemenope

                  And you think that’s representative? I know none of the mainline churches run things like that.

                • Sven2547

                  You “KNOW”? Now it’s MY turn to ask for data. Where does the money go?

                • 3lemenope

                  They are rather transparent, strongly hierarchical organizations, unlike the rather more free-wheeling non-mainline churches. Not as transparent as either of us would like, sure, but they are transparent enough for a decent level of confidence that they aren’t hoarding oodles of cash in sock drawers.

                  The big five are: United Methodist, ELCA, Presbyterian USA, Episcopal, American Baptist USA.

                  Find me a case of what you’re talking about in any of them. And then when we’re done with this tangent of how you would much rather focus on my claims than your own, you could proffer some evidence of your rather startling initial claim.

                • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

                  i notice you left off the RCC there. maybe you’ve heard of some of their banking scandals? Interpol is looking into them right now.

                  there is a difference between a little village church’s finances and that of some of these huge mega-churchs, and national or international demoninational organizations. if i had a nickel for every financial scandal at practically every denomination i’ve read about, i’d be rich. and really don’t think you can so easily dismiss the personal wealth of the megachurch leaders, as their flocks are far larger than the sum of a few neighborhood churches down the road.

                  there are honest religious leaders. but the point here is why can’t they all be taxed, like everybody else who enjoys schools, roads, firemen and the other things our taxes pay for? “because… gawd” is a stupid like of reasoning.

                  you should so some research into the megachurch complex economy. lots of them have stuff like bookstores, day care, entertainment centers… they are basically businesses operating for profit and calling themselves a “church” to get out of paying taxes.

                  if churches don’t want to pay taxes, they can do actual charity, and get the tax deduction for it, like everybody else. but it’s sickening to see most of the sheeple money go to fur coats for mistresses, private jets, obscenely large houses… and all that takes place right now, and more.

                • 3lemenope

                  The RCC is generally not considered mainline, since mainline churches are by definition Protestant.

                • 3lemenope

                  there are honest religious leaders. but the point here is why can’t they all be taxed, like everybody else who enjoys schools, roads, firemen and the other things our taxes pay for? “because… gawd” is a stupid line of reasoning.

                  “because…gawd” is a stupid line of reasoning. Notably it also isn’t the line of reasoning actually used by those who favor the exemption.

                  The two major historical arguments are what I’ll call the Argument from Diminished Rent and the Argument from the Best Possible Alternative.

                  The Argument from Diminished Rent points out that, as a rule (to which, yes, there are individual exceptions), church property is unsuited for capitalization. Their ability to collect rents on their owned property is pretty sharply limited (since it is not productive property, like a factory or an apartment building), and given that property tax rates assume a certain ability to capitalize and/or extract rents from the property, it would problematic in the extreme to apply those rates. Applying instead differing rates runs into serious establishment or free exercise problems and would have the practical upshot of simply killing a large number of churches outright.

                  The Argument from the Best Possible Alternative is simple (and reflects current SCOTUS reasoning on the issue, Walz v. Tax Comm. 397 U.S. 664 [1970]); given that the state must choose either to tax or not tax churches, the superior choice is the one that is less entangling. It is almost unimaginably less entangling to simply not touch the tax power rather than wade into the weeds of which church gets what breaks this week.

                • 3lemenope

                  there are honest religious leaders. but the point here is why can’t they all be taxed, like everybody else who enjoys schools, roads, firemen and the other things our taxes pay for? “because… gawd” is a stupid line of reasoning.

                  “because…gawd” is a stupid line of reasoning. Notably it also isn’t the line of reasoning actually used by those who favor the exemption.

                  The two major historical arguments are what I’ll call the Argument from Diminished Rent and the Argument from the Best Possible Alternative.

                  The Argument from Diminished Rent points out that, as a rule (to which, yes, there are individual exceptions), church property is unsuited for capitalization. Their ability to collect rents on their owned property is pretty sharply limited (since it is not productive property, like a factory or an apartment building), and given that property tax rates assume a certain ability to capitalize and/or extract rents from the property, it would problematic in the extreme to apply those rates. Applying instead differing rates runs into serious establishment or free exercise problems and would have the practical upshot of simply killing a large number of churches outright.

                  The Argument from the Best Possible Alternative is simple (and reflects current SCOTUS reasoning on the issue, Walz v. Tax Comm. 397 U.S. 664 [1970]); given that the state must choose either to tax or not tax churches, the superior choice is the one that is less entangling. It is almost unimaginably less entangling to simply not touch the tax power rather than wade into the weeds of which church gets what breaks this week.

                • alconnolly

                  Diminished rent rule is pure nonsense. They could easily design the church as very utilitarian and rent it out to many groups that require meeting options. In addition the less ornate they make it they lower the property tax. Therefore when they make a design and investment choice they should live with the carrying costs associated with it. If I am a rich person and design a 200 million dollar mansion should I be able to say well I can’t very well make a profit or even cover carrying cost on this place therefore diminished capacity therefore tax free. REALLY STUPID! Best possible alternative is church is on equal status with everyone else with tax laws so government does not have to decide anything except the regular stuff it decides for everyone. Clearly the best possible alternative if the goal is reduced entanglement. Both arguments are so imbecilic as to show they are not offered in good faith, but as ridiculous smokescreens.

          • http://www.facebook.com/lillmisspetite Danielle Russell

            You seem to be conflating notions of revenue and profit. A church can earn revenue, spend it on maintenance and other expenses and even have provisions for emergencies (aka savings) none of that is profit. Profits are what is left after expenses; businesses have them and pay taxes on it, churches are not supposed to have them so in fact they should not be tax exempt; unless they are in the habit of collecting more than they need and keeping the extras as non taxed sources of income afforded by their special tax exempt status…and they do !

            • 3lemenope

              Thank you for the explanation, but I do understand the difference. The disconnect seems to be here:

              [...]churches are not supposed to have them so in fact they should not be tax exempt[...]

              Similar to C Peterson’s claim, and just as nonsensical. The only way it does make sense in most cases is if you treat the pastor’s salary as profit-sharing rather than as an expense, which not only doesn’t reflect reality in most cases but isn’t even how it is done on paper. Churches have income, which go towards labor and facilities and so forth, its various expenses. No non-profit organization is required to exactly match their revenues with their expenses, as such a regulation would be absurdly onerous. Rather, they have to be in the ballpark, and any overages have to be dealt with in a predetermined (usually legally restricted) manner. Abuses occur when:

              1. the gap between revenues and expenses is large
              2. there is no significant exterior oversight of organizational expenditures

              I think everyone here can agree that “2″ obtains. It is the primary problem with the current system; the IRS doesn’t do its diligence to make sure that churches actually comply with the rules. But “1″ is where I think pretty much everyone on the thread is being a bit silly. Outside of the truly exceptional “megachurch”, the gap between revenues and expenses is simply not sizable enough to sustain a plausible charge of profiteering through the tax exemption. To up-end an entire anti-Establishment regime just to “get” megachurches seems to me a bad idea.

              • Sven2547

                So the pastor’s paycheck is an “expense”, and not “profit”?
                Do you consider executive compensation to be an “expense”, and not “profit”, as well?
                What meaningful difference is there between the business model of the Anglican church next door, and the barber shop down the street?

                • 3lemenope

                  I get the distinct sense that you don’t have much experience with non-profits at all (at least, how they generally work under-the-hood). Median CEO income for non-profits in US was ~$130,000 last year, placing pastors (~$80,000-90,000) on the low end. Yes, labor being compensated is an expense of a business, and as little as you or me might think of their work, it is still work. Labor compensation in non-profits often is scaled to success in fundraising, which tithing is analogous to for tax purposes.

                  The “meaningful difference”, BTW, is whether a product or service is being sold for profit or not. You or I could walk into pretty much any church in the US, partake of their “services”, and leave not one penny lighter. Try doing that with your barber.

                • Sven2547

                  So the meaningful difference is that people are guilt-tripped into paying instead of being charged? Is that all?
                  I don’t need to tip when I go to a restaurant, yet tips are taxed.

                  And yes, I do have experience with non-profits. The charity thrift store next to my office gives 50% of its proceeds to kids with developmental disabilities. Does your church come anywhere close to that?

          • C Peterson

            Making income isn’t the same as making profit.

            You could make an argument (very reasonably) that churches should be treated exactly the same as any other non-profit organization, and I’d have no problem with that. I suggested the alternative simply because, personally, I’m opposed to all non-profit organizations, so I’d prefer that the concept be eliminated, that no entity be exempt from property taxes, local taxes, or taxes on net income, and that no donations be tax deductible.

          • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

            Church non-profit status is waaay different from regular non-profit status. Churches are exempt from a lot of the reporting requirements other non-profits have to abide by. They also do not have to show that the majority of their money goes towards activities related to their fundraising or stated purpose/goal. Churches are effectively unable to have their status revoked for political activity: there’s a law that state investigations have to start from a certain (very high) level of IRS official. That IRS position no longer exists so just about the only person who can start an investigation is the head of the IRS. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t happen.

            In other words, churches are in a special, protected category of non-profit that they don’t deserve. If they were just treated as any other 501(c)3, it’d be better.

            • 3lemenope

              On that, we agree. The reporting requirements, I think, are key to ensuring that the system isn’t abused, and their lack has enabled much of the abuse we do see. I don’t see any compelling justification for exempting religious organizations from simple compliance regs.

      • Artor

        I’ve never understood what those reasons were. Perhaps you could elucidate? I can’t see any problems arising from abolishing tax-exempt status for churches.

        • 3lemenope

          I thumbnailed two of the arguments for chicago dyke above.

          • Artor

            I read those, & they were…unconvincing. One explanation I’ve heard is that churches supposedly operate charities that provide for the public good. Some of them actually do, but the vast majority of charitable donations given to churches go no to charity, but to support the operating costs & payroll of the church, as you yourself noted in several posts above. I would be in favor of amending the law to restrict tax exemption to those entities that provide real, quantifiable benefits to charity. A church that takes in money to cover it’s own expenses can pay taxes just like the rest of us, who work our asses off to cover our own expenses.

  • pamsfriend

    THis is part of the journey – we have to use the structures in place to create religions w/our own philosophies so that we can be recognized by policies like this one until policies like this one are done away with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/travis.myers.102977 Travis Myers

    Unless you’re dodging taxes, you’re not a member of a true religion.

  • Rain

    The county’s policy, according to Coleman, only respects “established, nonprofit religions” over new or different forms of worship.”

    Obviously that is discriminatory. What if you’re a fledgling religion that hasn’t gouged enough money to buy themselves a car and a house yet? If you don’t have a car and a house and a regular income then you’re not a nonprofit religion worthy of being called a nonprofit religion.

    Anyway the “fix is in” because, like it says, “County invocation policy — which didn’t exist until Coleman and Brandon Jones filed their lawsuit in June — states that those wishing to give the invocation must have tax-exempt status as a religious institution.” So in other words the thing about “established, nonprofit religions” is a load of BS. They just don’t want no stinkin atheists.

  • Claude

    Why must there be invocations at all.

    • rhodent

      Because JESUS.

      • Claude

        Seriously, why? It’s a convention that presumably exists in the murky zone between establishment of religion and freedom of religion, and one that has contributed to the de facto establishment of Christianity as the state religion, although it seems there’s a concerted effort now to be more inclusive. Why not abandon it altogether and expedite the people’s business.

        That goes for “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch, one of the many incidentals of 911. Yes, baseball is not a department of state, but it does have a peculiar status granted by the state.

        • SeekerLancer

          You just answered your own question. Most people who want an invocation before government meetings want Christianity to be established as the state religion, or at least given special privilege over other beliefs.

          The effort to be more inclusive is a sham as the overwhelming majority of these places are predominantly Christian meaning the likelihood of a non-Christian performing their invocation is pretty small. In this example we have a non-Christian group attempting to do it only to be muscled out of it, which is even more damning.

  • TnkAgn

    The utterly absurd, and patently unconstitutional gamesmanship of the Hamilton County Commissioners is on display here. Jones and Coleman should stop playing to the commissioners catch 22 game and simply demand that the invocations be discontinued.

    Atheist ministers? Come on.

  • JasonTorpy

    American Ethical Union, Society for Humanist Judaism, and the Humanist Society all hold tax exempt status as religious institutions (under Internal Revenue Code Section 170.b.1.A.i) So it is not necessarily the case that all atheists are excluded.

  • newavocation

    I’ve always found it odd that religions want to participate in government without paying taxes like everyone else. Their bingo cards are never free.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    So if a church voluntarily pays taxes…

  • Justin Miyundees

    Heard some jack ass pontificating about how the old guard has run the “feddal kauts” here in the south for generations and are currently lining up their successors to this noble and firmly established tradition. He then went on to spout off a particular anecdotal victory over “the blacks” when a certain activist came under heavy scrutiny “because he thought he had a ‘separate but equal’ case”. The local law enforcement was turned loose on him but when “they couldn’t even tag him with jay walking” they concocted another scheme – they went to the draft board and got his deferment reversed and sent his ass off to active duty (I assumed Vietnam from this loudmouth’s age). Yes suh, they had a ripe old laugh about that one. Yes suh… they find ways to deal with trouble maikahs – always have and always will… “like that young man your daughter is datin’ from Augusta, he’s a FINE young man! A FINE young man indeed!”

  • Randay

    Look at the bright side, atheists don’t get invited to the after-hours religious-political pedophilia orgies either.

  • DougI

    It’s another example of how the religious are persecuted in this country. Atheists have it so easy. Being that they are the responsible taxpayer they are excused from the tiresome, tedious task of bringing prayer to the government. Without prayer our government would be incompetent and corrupt. Atheists just get to skirt by without any responsibility. Just imagine what would happen to America if the religious didn’t get these special rights and privileges? It would be complete anarchy. We must coddle the religious and help them out. If they aren’t allowed to push their beliefs on everyone at taxpayer expense it will be akin to throwing them into concentration camps.

    Or so I imagine that’s what their defense is.

  • rupi capra

    If those wishing to give the invocation must have tax-exempt status as a religious institution, neither Jesus nor any of his disciples would have qualified.