New York Times takes on First Amendment

church state 01Some newspapers win Pulitzers through tenacious reporting, excellent prose and productive teamwork. The New York Times, which truly is one of my favorite papers, sometimes wins its Pulitzers by wielding its institutional clout, pulverizing readers with story after story about some expansive issue — seemingly dictated by editorial fiat rather than reader interest.

Who else suffered through that laughably bad Augusta National Golf Club bombardment? Apparently then-editor Howell Raines decided that the greatest problem facing America in 2002 was the failure of Augusta National to admit women as members. Never mind that Augusta National is a private club in a free country and that women could and did play the course as much as they liked. Yep, we needed to be treated to 40-plus news stories, columns and editorials about the horrors facing wealthy folks in Georgia.

And then there was that cloying Race in America series in 2000. And yes, it won a Pulitzer. I kind of imagine the Pulitzer committee decided on the award as a means to get the Times to just stop with all the stories already.

Compared to those sanctimonious series, the four-parter that ran this week isn’t so bad. Sure, it’s a guns-blazing attack on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, but what do you expect from the Times?

I kid, I kid. I kid because I love.

The breathlessly titled In God’s Name series examines how churches benefit from a historically liberal interpretation of the First Amendment. The first story, weighing in at almost 5,000 words, focuses on regulatory exemptions for religious organizations that run social services. Day two focused on rights of employees at religious organizations. The third installment was about revenue bond financing for religious groups. Part four is about the tax-exemption bounty that awaits members of the clergy. Part four made me want to ask my dad — a pastor — why we were so poor growing up. Seriously, if The New York Times is to be believed, my parents need to explain the powdered milk and hand-me-downs. While I talk to them, you can peruse all the articles, graphics and supporting multimedia here.

Business reporter Diana Henriques covers an incredibly interesting topic. It’s safe to say that the understanding of how the government treats religious entities has varied over time. I’m on record as someone concerned about government financing or support of any and all religious entities. We’ll look at the series in a few posts to see how well Henriques handled the weighty and complex questions. Here’s how she sets up her central thesis on day one:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.

Now, maybe it’s just my economics background, but is the story here the expansion of the First Amendment or the overwhelming expansion of regulation? It means nothing at all that there is an increase in exemptions for religious organizations without knowing how many additional regulatory burdens there are overall! In other words, if there are 2,000 additional regulations facing all nonprofit organizations and 200 additional exemptions for churches written into legislation (anonymously! gasp! and with little attention! gasp!), then that’s a net of 1,800 additional regulations on churches. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but all I could think of while reading the piece was how regulatory burdens have increased exponentially in the last 50 years.

Because of the increase in regulations, I would be surprised if the government did not write a significant number of exemptions for religious organizations — if only to keep on the right side of the law. And Henriques’ shady comparison of earmarks — directly funneling money to specific people — with the lifting of regulatory burdens is choice, if I may borrow a word from my childhood.

I find it incredibly funny that the solution the Times envisions for a disparity between regulatory burden for churches and other groups is to jack up regulations on nonprofits. I don’t think Henriques talked to a single person — even though there are many who would have loved to make this point — who said that they believe American businesses, nonprofits and individuals are drowning in a flood of regulations.

establishment clauseEither way, when dealing with a contentious topic, reporters should be careful to source everything:

The changes reflect, in part, the growing political influence of religious groups and the growing presence of conservatives in the courts and regulatory agencies. But these tax and regulatory breaks have been endorsed by politicians of both major political parties, by judges around the country, and at all levels of government.

That’s the paper of record, folks. How come my editors never let me write broad and unsubstantiated statements such as these? I feel like the standards should be lower for me than for flashy Times reporters.

She hammers the idea that religious exemptions cost society. While churches don’t pay property taxes, for instance, they are served by police departments. (Let’s not hold our breath for Henriques’ next series on why the poor should not have their fires extinguished.) But readers would be better served by her mentioning that congregations are full of taxpaying members. She might also have mentioned that some people don’t believe in double taxation at all.

I love the idea that a business reporter would look into these issues. But I think the series would have benefited from more economic balance. It definitely would have helped to have Laurie Goodstein or another religion reporter on board. Heck, Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of all things Factual” Greenhouse would have been helpful! Knowing, for instance, that different religions have different views on female pastors, homosexuality, debt, usury and insurance could help explain why the federal government would be violating the Establishment Clause if it mandated that religious entities follow regulations on same.

Stay tuned for more coverage on the series.

Photo via Riles3821 on Flickr.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I meant to thank all the readers who sent the articles along and offered thoughtful commentary. Even for high-profile papers, it helps to have articles submitted.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Amen.

    I’ll jump in on part II later in the day. Mollie has given us all much to chew on.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Henriques seemd to make some unfortunate errors. Today’s piece seems to imply that ministers don’t pay income tax–they have to make quarterly income tax payments, just like any self employed worker does– and while they might be able to opt out of social security–doesn’t that mean they have no social security benefits. So it’s a bit of a moot point

  • sharon

    Not to mention that churches have to have copious record-keeping abilities for audit purposes.

  • http://www.physicsgeekjesusfreak.blogspot.com FzxGkJssFrk

    “Part four made me want to ask my dad — a pastor — why we were so poor growing up. Seriously, if the New York Times is to be believed, my parents need to explain the powdered milk and hand-me-downs.”

    Amen, from a fellow PK.

  • http://www.streetprophets.com pastordan

    This is one of those issues where a broad range of folks can agree. I was dubious about the articles at my place, and Melissa Rogers tells me she’s heard the same from other progressive types.

    But thanks for the “powdered milk and hand-me-downs” crack, Mollie. Being a PK and having survived those hazards myself, I had to laugh at that.

  • Steve

    After I read the series, my take is that there are many legal protections that federal, state and local governments have given to religious organizations, that they can missuse these exemptions. Also, many religious organizations engage in activities that would normally be subject to regulations and they are exempt, thus given them an unfair advantage over other organizations providing the same services.

    As for the pastors, certain classes of church workers can exclude part of their compensation as a “housing allowance” that is exempt for all forms of taxation. No other class of citizens enjoys this type of beneifts.

    I believe that if a church benefits from the community (fire protection, police, etc) they should be willing to contribute to the community.

  • sharon

    You don’t think churches contribute to the community through things like food pantries, free English classes, free counseling, clothing drives, etc.?

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Steve,

    Actually, workers who live in employee owned housing and who receive housing as a part of their benefits, don’t pay taxes on that housing benefit. For example, dorm directors don’t pay tax on the housing they receive as compensation –but do receive a reduced salary (in the same way that ministers do). Part of the reason for the parsonage exemption, as I understand it, is that the house is used in part for the pastor’s work.

  • Steve

    Sharon:

    How is this different from another non-for-profit such as a United Way agency? Shouldn’t these agencies also then receive the same exemptions as religious organizations do?

  • Steve

    Bob:

    You’re right about RA’s in a dorm since I was one. The difference is that the RA was required to live in the dorm as a condition of employment.

    If a pastor uses their home for church work, why can’t they deduct the expenses just like a person is self-employed deducts the cost of their home for their business.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    One of my beefs with the articles were that they didn’t do a good job of accurately characterizing the difference between exemptions for churches and non-profits.

    For instance, non-profits of all kinds receive exemptions from various regulations. And then churches — due to their First Amendment protection as interpreted by SCOTUS and others in authority — receive more.

    But how much the regular non-profits receive versus the churches was not clearly identified.

    As a result, it’s hard to know how big of a deal the disparity is — even if you DON’T think the First Amendment protections should be applied liberally.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Let’s try to focus, by the way, on the journalistic issues at play.

    If you want to discuss the First Amendment as written or applied — here’s probably not the place.

    We discuss media coverage of religious issues.

    What did you think of the MANNER in which Henriques handled the issues?

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  • http://www.newyorknewchurch.org Will

    “Not to mention that churches have to have copious record-keeping abilities for audit purposes.”

    Tell me about it, said the church president. If my pastor tries to bring up this “expose”, I will retort “They’re talking about YOU.”

    And last I heard, the IRS was being downright nasty about claimed deductions for “home office”.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    One man’s “regulatory burden” is another man’s safety net (or lack thereof.) This story from the series shocked me with its callousness.

    Mary Rosati, said she had visited her doctor with her immediate supervisor and the mother superior. After the doctor explained her treatment options for breast cancer, the complaint continued, the mother superior announced: “We will have to let her go. I don’t think we can take care of her.”

    Some months later Ms. Rosati was told that the mother superior and the order’s governing council had decided to dismiss her after concluding that “she was not called to our way of life,” according to the complaint. Along with her occupation and her home, she lost her health insurance.

  • Joel

    Hurrah! A religion writer who gets economics. So many politics writers are clueless — they talk about regulation as if a central planner could magically dictate a utopian society.

    It’s as if the Soviet Union had never existed. Or that no one had written about Eurosclerosis in the last 20 years.

    Of course, it’s the dogma of the NYT that if nonprofit A has more regulation than nonprofit B, the solution is to increase regulation on B rather than reduce it on A.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “What did you think of the MANNER in which Henriques handled the issues? ”

    Gee, the NYT took a swipe at Christianity and called then called for more government regulation as the answer to something nobody had previously thought of as a problem. Not to be terribly cynical here, but doesn’t this sort of rank up there with “Sky found to be blue in color!”?

    Can the daring NYT expose of how Vatican hiring practices betray a distinct lack of religous diversity be far behind?… “Even today no Jews or Muslims occupy positions of power in the Vatican City State, and that’s a FACT” said Linda Greenhouse…. (insert pointed and uncharitable quip about “Greenhouse gas emissions” here).

    I think it was Pastor Jeff who a couple of days ago talked about the strategy of simply having biased reporters and not worring about it because your readership becomes self-selecting and you don’t get any complaints. For better or worse, intentionally or not, that is what the “old media” has been doing ever since Watergate made every left wing campus activist into a journalisim major.

    This is also why the NYT stock price has flatlined, why the audiences of the 3 network nightly newscasts are both old and shrinking, and why (I am told) the L.A. Times has fewer than 800,000 subscribers in an area of almost 13,000,000 people.

    Media bias is a problem that the Mainstream Media hasn’t really wanted to solve, and hasn’t solved for going on 40 years now. Thanks to new technolgy the marketplace is solving it for them. It’s not the technology that attracts readers to the blogs, it is the ability to get truly diverse views, more news, and simply better journalisim. (To a lesser extent the same could be said of Talk Radio).

    The New York Times is the Trabant of 21st Century Media, they just don’t know it yet.

  • Michael

    It seems to me that complaining that a story about religious exemptions doesn’t analyze the conservative economic argument against regulation is a little like complaining that a story about steroids in baseball doesn’t analyze the high cost of MLB tickets.

    The story she wrote–as opposed to the hypothetical story about the ills of regulation–was well-balanced, quoted people from all sides, and included a wealth of information from all sides. If anything, those unconcerned about the excesses of the exemptions got more airplay than those who felt there were problems.

    The examples she used were extreme, but of course it’s not the country minister who is the problem when they get tax exemption, but instead the megachurch minister with a Learjet or the well-financed church fighting zoning laws so they can build their sanctuary that can seat thousands or their amusement park.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    She hammers the idea that religious exemptions cost society. While churches don’t pay property taxes, for instance, they are served by police departments. (Let’s not hold our breath for Henriques’ next series on why the poor should not have their fires extinguished.)

    Actually this isn’t a good analogy. While the poor may not pay taxes directly, the landlords and landladies of the poor do pay those taxes. And landlords and landladies rarely swallow that cost themselves–it’s passed along in the form of rent.

    Rather the focus should be on the good churches do in their community. Also, many churches allow the use of their facilities for civic reasons such as for polling stations on election day, usually rent-free. Weigh the cost of renting a facility for a day.

    And, as Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee so “eloquently” put it, user fees assessed on property is assessed on profit, non-profit, and private citizen alike. Hence they are not called “taxes.”