In the News (August 2018)

New tax law quietly hits churches, others

Republicans have quietly imposed a new tax on churches, synagogues and other nonprofits, a little-noticed and surprising change that could cost some groups tens of thousands of dollars.

The recent tax code rewrite requires churches, hospitals, colleges and other historically tax-exempt organizations to begin paying a 21 percent tax on some types of fringe benefits they provide employees.

That could force thousands of groups that have long had little contact with the IRS to suddenly begin filing returns and paying taxes for the first time.

Many organizations are stunned to learn of the tax and say it will be a significant financial and administrative burden.

Indiana GOP to keep old definition of marriage

The Indiana Republican Party voted to keep language defining marriage as being “between a man and a woman” in its platform, rejecting language meant to be more inclusive of same-sex couples.

Members at the GOP state party’s convention on June 9 overwhelmingly voted to keep the biblically-inspired language first adopted under then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2014.

The Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in the United States.

Daniel Elliot, chair of the Morgan County Republican Party, said that the concept of marriage being between a man and woman is central to the beliefs of “Hoosier Republicans.”

“This language . . . recognizes the reality on the ground that most families are headed by married couples,” Elliot said.

Sessions: Rule favors religious institutions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an initiative on June 13 aimed at boosting the Justice Department’s role protecting religious institutions from supposedly cumbersome zoning rules.

“Under the laws of this country, government cannot discriminate against people based on their religion — not in law enforcement, not in grant-making, not in hiring and not in local zoning laws,” Sessions said in a statement announcing the Place to Worship Initiative.

The announcement said the Justice Department would expand awareness of a 2000 law to shield religious institutions from overly restrictive zoning regulations and would provide “additional training and resources for federal prosecutors,” with an inaugural community outreach event in New Jersey later this month.

N.C. House OKs ‘In God We Trust’ in schools

After a debate about whether it’s promoting religion, the North Carolina state House voted overwhelmingly June 7 to require public schools to display in a prominent place the words “In God We Trust,” belatedly adopted as our nation’s motto only in 1955.

Supporters of House Bill 965, which passed 94-15, said that the legislation would promote the nation’s history and identity because it is the national motto. They denied that the bill was an attempt to promote religion in general or Christianity in particular.

But critics said the bill sends the message that the state is backing one religion over another because most people will assume it’s referring to Christianity.

“I really do believe that it is in our best interests for our nation for us not to try to promote the triune God through government,” said Rep. Verla Insko, referring to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

All the Republicans voted for the bill while it split Democrats. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Crocodile kills pastor during mass baptism

Tragedy struck a mass baptism in an African lake when a crocodile leaped from the water and killed the pastor.

The Rev. Docho Eshete was conducting the ceremony June 3 for about 80 people at Lake Abaya in southern Ethiopia. Eshete died after being bitten on his legs, back and hands.

“He baptized the first person and he passed on to another one. All of a sudden, a crocodile jumped out of the lake and grabbed the pastor,” local resident Ketema Kairo told BBC.

After the crocodile struck, congregants and local fishermen attempted to save the Protestant clergyman, policeman Eiwnetu Kanko said, using fishing nets to prevent the crocodile from taking Eshete further into the lake.

Majority don’t support denying service to gays

Most Americans don’t support allowing gay Americans to be denied services because of the religious convictions of a business owner.

Six in 10 Americans oppose allowing a small-business owner in their state to refuse products or services to gay people even if providing them would violate the business owner’s religious beliefs, according to survey findings published in May by the Public Religion Research Institute.

There are only two major religious groups in which the majority of adherents think that small-business owners should be able to refuse service to gay people for religious reasons: white evangelical Protestants and Mormons.

Anti-abortion pregnancy centers win in court

Ruling for opponents of abortion on free speech grounds, the Supreme Court said June 26 that the state of California may not require religiously oriented “crisis pregnancy centers” to supply women with information about how to end their pregnancies.

The case was a clash between state efforts to provide women with facts about their medical options and First Amendment rulings that place limits on the government’s ability to compel people to say things at odds with their beliefs.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the five-justice conservative majority, accepted the free-speech argument, ruling that the First Amendment prohibits California from forcing the centers, which oppose abortion on religious grounds, to post notices about how to obtain the procedure.

Ireland may vote down law banning blasphemy

In October, citizens in the Republic of Ireland will vote in a referendum on whether the blasphemy clause should be stripped from the Constitution.

“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law,” says Article 40 of the Irish Constitution.

While Irish “blasphemers” are unlikely to be punished, the prohibition is still in the Constitution, and a corresponding law is on the books, with a top fine of almost $30,000.

Michael Nugent, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Atheism Ireland, welcomed the referendum, saying that even in the absence of prosecutions the law was causing real damage to freedom of expression in Ireland, and to the country’s reputation abroad.

S.C. to discriminate against non-Christians

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has intervened with the Department of Health and Human Services to secure a religious exemption from federal nondiscrimination laws for a Christian foster-care-placement agency in his state.

Without the exemption, the placement agency, Miracle Hill Ministries, could lose its license because it refuses to place foster children with non-Christian families.

McMaster acted in February when the Department of Social Services warned Miracle Hill that its license as a child-placing agency was at risk. It had given regulators “reason to believe” that it “intends to refuse to provide its services as a licensed Child Placing Agency to families who are not Christians from a Protestant denomination,” according to documents obtained by the  ACLU.

School buses to get ‘In God We Trust’ decals

The Lee County (Va.) School Board voted unanimously to put “In God We Trust” flag decals on their school buses.

“There’s actually a state law that requires us to have ‘In God We Trust’ placed in each of our school buildings so this seems like a natural follow up on that and I think something around here will appreciate and take pride in having on the buses,” Lee County School Board member Rob Hines said.