Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Religious Liberty

We are in the midst of an era of religious liberty challenges.

Religious organizations and religious communities are faced with this new reality: The federal government has decided that it can and should define two classes of religious organizations, two kinds of religion, and two degrees of religious freedom. Churches, being inwardly oriented, get an exemption—full protection for their convictions and practices. All other religious organizations, being outwardly oriented on service and not only inwardly on worship, are not exercising pure religion, according to the government, and thus only merit a lesser degree of religious freedom—an “accommodation.” This deeply mistaken conception is the biggest problem underlying the contraceptives mandate under the health care law.1

But it doesn’t stop there. “[T]he deeply troubling contemporary trends [are] for laws and regulations themselves to be less accommodating of religion, and for constitutional interpretive schemes to prioritize other values over religious freedom. If these trends continue, then fewer religion-accommodating rules will be allowed to stand, and then fewer court decisions will end up favorable to religious exercise by individuals or institutions.”2

Some positive news came last year with the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous Hosanna-Tabor decision, upholding the right of religious organizations to select their ministers without governmental interference.3 Consistent with First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, the Supreme Court recognized that religious organizations should be autonomous in important matters of self-governance.

Since its founding in 1979, ECFA has played a vital role in preserving the freedom of Christ-centered organizations to carry out the Great Commission. ECFA is unique in that it facilitates an environment for organizations in the Christian faith community to exercise self-government and demonstrate appropriate accountability, alleviating the need for burdensome government oversight.

Critical to ECFA’s success in this area are its time-tested standards requiring accredited members to operate with biblical integrity and excellence in the areas of governance, finances, and fundraising.

Especially in recent years, concerns have been voiced by some donors and lawmakers that leaders of certain nonprofit organizations and related parties are abusing their organization’s tax-exempt status by receiving excessive compensation or other unreasonable financial benefits. In response, the ECFA board has just approved an enhancement to ECFA’s existing standards, including a policy for excellence in compensation-setting and related-party transactions. In doing so, ECFA once again takes a leadership role in promoting and upholding the highest degree of ethical standards within the Christ-centered nonprofit community.

ECFA’s history and present activities demonstrate its strong commitment to religious liberty:
  • ECFA’s founding. ECFA was formed at a time when the behaviors of some religious institutions caused concern and distrust with the giving public. 
Leaders in Congress began to question whether they should step in to provide additional government oversight to ensure tax-exempt religious organizations were operating ethically and within the bounds of the law.

Senator Mark Hatfield met with Christian leaders and encouraged them to form a group where interested organizations could demonstrate integrity and accountability to their donors and the government and, in turn, avoid the need for new burdensome legislation.
  • Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations. The Commission was formed in 2011 at the request of Senator Charles Grassley. 
The senator’s inquiry into the financial practices of several media-based ministries raised issues concerning whether new legislation would be necessary to regulate the activities of churches and other religious nonprofit organizations.

Senator Grassley turned to ECFA to address the tax and policy issues raised by his staff’s inquiry. In doing so, he recognized ECFA’s proven track record of self-regulation to avoid unnecessary legislation and preserve religious liberty: “The challenge is to encourage good governance and best practices and so preserve confidence in the tax-exempt sector without imposing regulations that inhibit religious freedom or are functionally ineffective.”4

ECFA formed the Commission and its panels of religious sector representatives, nonprofit sector representatives, and legal experts—comprised of experienced leaders known for their integrity—to provide input on these issues.

In the Commission’s report, Commission chairman Michael Batts commented, “Religious freedom is one of the most sacred freedoms we enjoy in the United States and it must be preserved. Religious and other nonprofit organizations positively impact our society in virtually every aspect of life, and their good work is immeasurable. We cannot allow the behavior of a few outliers in the religious and nonprofit sector to threaten the freedoms of those who are not the problem—those who are doing the good work.”
ECFA continues to play a vital role in preserving religious freedom in this country by facilitating an environment of self-government and self-regulation within the Christ-centered nonprofit community. The recent enhancement of the ECFA standards and the latest work of the Commission demonstrate this ongoing commitment by ECFA consistent with its founding over 30 years ago.

The exponential growth of ECFA in recent years demonstrates that Christ-centered organizations are now more interested than ever in assuring the government and the giving public that they properly steward God’s resources with which they have been entrusted.

1 Stanley Carlson-Thies, Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, eNews for Faith-Based Organizations, November 14, 2012.
2 Stanley Carlson-Thies, Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, eNews for Faith-Based Organizations, September 11, 2012.
3 Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012).
4 Press Release, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Grassley Releases Review of Tax Issues Raised by Media-based Ministries (Jan. 6, 2011), available at