On Tuesday the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges. The unpretentious title of the case belies its significance. Obergefell in essence is the final step in the legalization of same-sex marriage. To this point, that process has proceeded state by state. Now the Supreme Court has agreed to determine the final outcome. According to their decision–to be announced sometime this summer–the United States as a whole will recognize same-sex marriage or not.
It’s always dangerous to play “what if” because no one knows exactly how the court will decide. But most people–myself included–believe it will hand down a split decision recognizing same-sex marriage as a civil right guaranteed in the Constitution. All states will be forced to perform these marriages and recognize such marriages performed in other states. The momentum toward this conclusion has been so intense and widespread over the last few years that any other decision is hard to imagine. I’m prepared to be surprised, of course. And like evangelical Christians throughout the nation I’d be overjoyed with another outcome. But I’m not hopeful for it.
So back to the “what if”–what if the court changes the law and criminalizes the traditional definition of marriage? What does that mean for the church? Or at least that portion of the American church that still holds to the authority of God’s Word.
Here’s where things get sticky. In Tuesday’s oral arguments before the court, one telling exchange should make churches take notice of the true intentions of the government. When Justice Samuel Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (representing the Obama Administration) about the right of religious institutions to maintain their tax exempt status should they refuse to recognize same-sex marriages, this was Verrilli’s response:
“You know, I…I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I…I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is…it is going to be an issue.”
“It is going to be an issue,” the government said.
Yes, it is. A very big issue indeed. Churches and other religious institutions that refuse to be broken to the government’s saddle will lose their non-profit status. Count on it. This has been apparent for some time, and now the day has arrived.
Al Mohler pointed out yesterday what the consequences might be:
The loss of tax-exempt status would put countless churches and religious institutions out of business, simply because the burden of property taxes and loss of charitable support would cripple their ability to sustain their mission.
What if? It’s not an idle question. I fully expect it to happen–and sooner rather than later. I’ll try to explore more of the implications of all this in future blogs, but for right now, here are some obvious questions:
- If churches lose their tax-exempt status, how will that affect their financial contributions?
- How would the shape of local church life and ministry be changed with a lower level of financial support?
- Would the large, institutional churches that characterize so much of American religious life be feasible when previous levels of financial support are no longer available?
- With so many churches owning large tracts of property, how would the need to pay property taxes impact their budgets?
- Here’s a follow up question to the first four: Have American churches become so wealthy and materialistic that the only metric we can understand is money?
- Under the present law,501(c)(3), non-profit organizations like churches are prohibited from political involvement. If churches were no longer bound by that law, would that mean a louder voice in political campaigns?
- Churches are so entangled with government regulations and restrictions–could freedom from those restrictions actually result in a greater degree of freedom and authenticity?