The far right makes no secret of its hatred for the Internal Revenue Service, but recent comments by IRS Commissioner John Koskinen should earn the agency a few brownie points with fundamentalists who fear that Christian colleges will be forced to extend benefits to married same-sex couples or risk their tax exemptions.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to expand marriage equality nationwide, the Religious Right carped that Christian universities will be forced to choose between their religious beliefs and their tax-exempt status because the federal government will demand that they accommodate gay couples.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins was among the first to claim Christian colleges would be forced to violate their religious beliefs or close up shop. He even erroneously accused Americans United of using its new project, Protect Thy Neighbor, to specifically target Christian schools.
“Starting with Christian colleges, [American United Executive Director Barry] Lynn’s ‘Protect Thy Neighbor’ project promises to use the IRS as a weapon to force same-sex ‘married’ housing on universities with natural marriage views,” Perkins whined.
Of course this isn’t true. Here’s what PTN is doing: Fighting legislation and policies that would purport to authorize government clerks to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples; permit medical professionals to deny healthcare in the name of religion; allow government grantees and contractors to use religion as a reason to hire, fire, and withhold services in taxpayer-funded programs; or claim to protect “religious freedom,” but are aimed at trumping non-discrimination laws and interfering with women’s reproductive freedom. In other words, we are standing up for our neighbors.
It’s also worth remembering that Americans United has no power over the IRS. Over the years, we have asked the tax agency to crack down on church-based partisan politicking – but not much has happened. We have no ability to magically “weaponize” the IRS.
It is true that more than 30 years ago, Bob Jones University argued that it had a “religious freedom” right to ban interracial dating and keep its tax-exempt status. The high court in 1983 rejected that argument, finding that the government had the right to deny tax exemption to the institution if it insisted on maintaining a racist policy. (The school nonetheless continued to ban interracial dating until the year 2000.)
Religious Right leaders have been arguing that the same thing will happen to religious schools that refuse to recognize marriage equality. But nothing will happen unless the IRS decides to act, and right now, according to Koskinen, the agency has no plans to do that – nor has the power to.
At a U.S. Senate hearing last week, Koskinen made it clear that he has no plans to punish religious colleges that don’t recognize marriage equality. The Christian Post reported that he “will commit to making sure that the IRS does not punish religious schools for not adopting policies to accommodate gay marriage – such as allowing married same-sex couples to live in married student housing – as long as he is in charge of the IRS....”
But Koskinen did not promise that this is a dead issue, simply because he doesn’t have that power.
“All we do is follow whatever the public policy is that is set by other organizations,” he said. “At this point other actions would have to take place before the IRS can consider issuing a regulation, which would give people notices to what we think the public policy was and then cases and exams would be conducted under that.”
For the time being, it is clear that Christian colleges are not being targeted. There is no absolute right for any entity to be tax exempt – which is essentially a government subsidy. The public might expect that in return for tax-exempt status, these colleges would not have policies that conflict with the U.S. Constitution and result in discrimination. Yet, for now, this is the case.