Last week on The Surly Subgroup, I wrote about a bill making its way through the House right now. The last section of that bill would make it even harder than it already is for the IRS to audit churches it suspects have campaigning for or against candidates for office.
Reading the bill (and writing the post) crystallized for me a question I’ve had at the back of my mind: how much accommodation should we push for? That is, should there be an upper to the exceptions churches and other religious organizations seek from the law?
I guess I should start with this: I support the idea of religious accommodation. Religious entities should be free from (at least some) laws that impinge on their religious beliefs and practices. The law should not forbid, for example, a Jewish Air Force officer from wearing his yarmulke.
At the same time, there are limits to accommodation. Even if a religion teaches that it should be able to take any real property that God demands it take, the law should not recognize and enforce property rights in property that belongs to other people.
I’m not talking about these extreme cases, though—I’m talking about matters of convenience. For example, there’s not (legitimate) religious objection to auditing a church, or at least, there’s not one that the government needs to recognize. At the same time, while there are problems with heightened audit procedures applicable only to churches, the revenue system can survive them (the IRS has already faced heightened audit standards for churches for at least two decades).
But this is my question: at what point does requesting accommodations harm religion itself? (And n.b. that there’s no indication at all that any church, much less churches as a category, requested the heightened audit standards; it could well have been a Texas Representative who saw something in the news about a church investigation in his district, was offended by the idea, and added a rider to a bill.)
I don’t have any solid evidence, but my feeling is that, at some point, society has a limited tolerance for requests for special treatment. And my feeling, further, is that, the more arbitrary and unimportant those requests, the less patience society has for them.
And the heightened audit requirements strike me as an arbitrary and unimportant accommodation. Yes, churches (like the rest of us!) would rather not be audited. But not-being-audited doesn’t strike me as a compelling religiously-based practice.
It may be valuable for religion to think carefully before advocating any particular accommodation—I would hate for churches to lose accommodations writ large over a handful of cases of overreach.