Fighting Discrimination

Should the government be able to deny benefits to ‘nontheistic’ churches? This Mich. legislator thinks so.

  Rob Boston

A state legislator in Michigan is so angry that a group he doesn’t like was permitted to erect a display outside the state capitol building in Lansing last month that he wants to strip “non-theistic” churches of their tax-exempt status.

Rep. Josh Schriver (R-Oxford) was upset over a “yule goat” that was displayed by the Satanic Temple of Western Michigan on a lawn near the capitol building. Lawns adjacent to the capitol are free-speech zones, and private groups may erect displays on them under certain conditions. Last month, groups used the lawns to host a nativity scene, a menorah and the yule goat.

Display gets lawmaker’s goat

The goat effigy didn’t sit well with Schriver. As our friends at Right Wing Watch noted, Schriver posted a video of himself on X (formerly Twitter), fulminating, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I rebuke the sadistic satanic baphomet goat altar at OUR Michigan Capitol.” He also joined six other lawmakers in a letter to the Michigan Capitol Commission insisting that the display be removed. (It wasn’t.)

But Schriver didn’t stop there. Speaking on a far-right radio program in late December, Schriver said, “I actually am working on a policy right now – I haven’t introduced it yet – but it’s actually to really focus on making a distinction between the church, the church of Jesus Christ, and this, quote unquote, Church of Satan. You really have an issue where they’re seen as equal in the eyes of the state, and that doesn’t seem right to me for many, many legitimate reasons. And so, removing tax-exempt status from nontheistic churches such as the Church of Satan, I think is very, very well in order.”

A problematic proposal

We have a few problems here. First off, the yule goat, a tradition that’s popular in some parts of Scandinavia, was erected by a branch of the Satanic Temple, not the Church of Satan. They are two separate entities. The Satanic Temple doesn’t worship Satan – its members don’t even believe in him. They view Satan as a metaphor for rebellion against harsh forms of dogma.

Secondly, tax exemption for houses of worship (and other nonprofit groups, such as charities, social welfare groups, educational institutions, arts organizations, activist groups, etc.) generally falls under federal law. While the issue of tax exemption is not addressed in the U.S. Constitution, a body of federal law governs it under the purview of the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS recognized the Satanic Temple as a tax-exempt church in 2019. The legislature of the state of Michigan can’t overturn that.

Finally, Schriver’s proposal would create a system of unequal treatment. Under his scheme, theistic churches would be approved and get the lucrative benefit of tax exemption. Entities deemed “nontheistic” would not. Would prominent nontheistic bodies such as the Unitarian Universalist Association, Ethical Culture and perhaps forms of Buddhism, which lack belief in a personal god, be stripped of their tax-exempt status? Do we really want to give the government that power? Schriver’s plan is almost certainly unconstitutional.

This is probably just more gassing off from a legislator who’s such a snowflake that he can’t tolerate the free speech of a group he clearly doesn’t understand. But if Schriver’s proposal ever gets introduced in the Michigan legislature, it deserves what it will likely get: a quick death.

P.S. Today is Religious Freedom Day. Clearly, some of our legislators need to bone up on that concept.

Photo: A typical yule goat. By Rohan Pinto via Creative Commons

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