Church’s Tax-Exempt Status Sparks New Discussions about Religion and the First Amendment

nontheist organization to gain tax exemption, other legal benefits

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Satanic Temple has been recognized by the federal government as an official religion, Business Insider reported May 7. The organization will be granted tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service and be eligible for other legal benefits like any other church. How do American laws and churches coexist?

Satanic Church Tax Exempt

According to the Business Insider article, the Satanic Temple calls itself a nontheistic religion that in no way worships the Biblical figure of Satan. Headquartered in Salem, Massachusetts, the Satanic Temple is said to have 20 chapters in the United States and four affiliate groups internationally. An atheistic religion may sound like an oxymoron, or merely an elaborate attempt at satire taking aim at America’s separation of church and state. However, in the United States, the legitimacy of being classified as a religious organization largely rests with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Of course, the IRS is the revenue service of the federal government responsible for collecting taxes and enforcing tax laws. Therefore, the IRS decides which organizations are legally exempt from paying taxes due to religious organization status, which includes being eligible for receiving other federal benefits associated with religious groups. In addition to this new example, several fascinating ins and outs of religion and law in America persist to this day.

Satanic Church, Tax Exemption, Deism and the First Amendment

As the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America specifically says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But why does it outline the separation between legislature and establishing an official religion?

“Most of the Founding Fathers could be considered Deist, or at least strongly influenced by Deist beliefs,” Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, said. “Deists believe in God, but their conception of God is the ‘God of Nature.’ In general, they do not believe in a God who intervenes in daily affairs (and, thus, they reject miracles), or a God with whom people have a personal relationship.” According to Dr. Berkson, our first five presidents and Benjamin Franklin were rationalists who believed in a God who created the universe and then withdrew from it, a popular theory that persists to this day and refers to God as “The Divine Watchmaker.”

However, no exact specification is given as to what constitutes an establishment of religion by the state. Because of this, many controversial court cases have tried to draw a line between the government allowing religious exercise versus actively endorsing it. Issues still spark debate today: prayer in public schools, teaching creationism or the Big Bang Theory in science classes as the origin of the universe, and many others.

Free Exercise of Religion with a Grain of Salt

Like any other religion, the Satanic Temple will have to adhere to the paradoxical idea of “limited freedom.” While the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, it doesn’t give Americans the liberty to break any other law they choose in the name of their religion. “Obviously, if any act were permitted as long as it is claimed to be religious in some way, there would be a risk of a breakdown in social order,” Dr. Berkson said. “To take an extreme example, if a religious tradition believed in human sacrifice, nobody would argue that the state would permit this on First Amendment grounds.”

In Wisconsin v. Yoder in 1972, the Amish turned to the Supreme Court to allow them to refuse mandatory education for their children past the eighth grade. “The Amish […] believe in maintaining a distance from worldly lifestyles and technology in order to maintain a pure Christian life and to avoid corruption,” Dr. Berkson said. “They want their children to be educated at home after the eighth grade so that they can focus on skills related to the home and farm and receive a proper religious education without being contaminated by worldly teachings.” In this case, the Supreme Court sided with the Amish, deciding that their religious freedoms would be burdened and that the children could still receive proper education at home.

On the other hand, Dr. Berkson noted, in Reynolds v. United States, a Mormon named George Reynolds in the 1870s fought and lost in court for his religious right to marry multiple wives, with the court stating that the belief undermined social order. Similarly, in 1990, an American Indian man named Al Smith attended religious rituals and used peyote, an otherwise illegal substance. He was then fired from his job and denied unemployment benefits. The Supreme Court sided against him, arguing that the generally applicable law against peyote use doesn’t specifically target Smith’s religion and, therefore, ruling with him would open floodgates for people to ignore generally applicable laws.

The Satanic Temple is, for the time being, America’s newest religion. It will doubtlessly face legal battles in the future regarding its practice and beliefs if the preceding examples are any indication.

Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Dr. Mark Berkson contributed to this article. Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities.