Acton Institute Powerblog

How the Federal Government May Put Christian Schools Out of Business

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outofbusinessWith seven words—“It is going to be an issue”—the U.S. government signaled to orthodox Christian colleges and universities that if they don’t drop their opposition to same-sex marriage they will lose their tax exempt status.

Those words came yesterday when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case concerning whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s must guarantee the right for same-sex couples to marry. While the primary issue is whether gay marriage will be required in every state in the union, one exchange highlighted how the upcoming ruling could affect religious liberty. Justice Samuel Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli how it would affect educational institution that opposed same-sex marriage:

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI: 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.

In the case of Bob Jones University (Bob Jones University v. United States (1983)), the Supreme Court ruled that the religion clauses of the First Amendment did not prohibit the IRS from revoking the tax exempt status of a religious university whose practices are contrary to a compelling government public policy.

The policy at Bob Jones was indeed loathsome and contrary to Scripture, which the school later admitted when it apologized for it’s racist past. But opposition to same-sex marriage is not the same as racial animus. Yet the government, through it’s representative, has now signaled that Christians schools may soon be treated like racists and pariahs for refusing to give up the view of marriage shared by almost all people throughout history prior to the 1990s.

This threat is more radical than many people realize. It’s not merely that Christian schools will have to choose between accepting federal funds and keeping their religious views about sexuality. If the choice were to follow the example of schools like Hillsdale College or New Saint Andrews College and forego taking any federal money, the decisions about what to do would be painful, but obvious.

But what it being proposed is to revoke non-profit status, a move that would destroy many schools. According to the IRS, if an organization’s tax-exempt status is revoked it is no longer exempt from federal income tax and is not eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. As Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, notes, “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.”

In 2005, Jonathan Turley, a law professor who support gay rights, warned this would happen:

The debate over same-sex marriage represents a coalescing of rights of free exercise, free speech, and expressive association. With the exception of abortion, same-sex marriage is almost unique in blurring neat divisions between these rights. Many organizations attract members with their commitment to certain fundamental matters of faith or morals, including a rejection of same-sex marriage or homosexuality. It is rather artificial to tell such groups that they can condemn homosexuality as long as they are willing to hire homosexuals as a part of that mission. It is equally disingenuous to suggest that denial of such things as tax exemption does not constitute a content-based punishment for religious views. . . . The denial of tax-exempt status presents a particularly serious threat to these organizations and puts them at a comparative advantage to groups with contrary views.

When Turley originally made this claim ten years ago, many people assumed he was overstating the case and that same-sex marriage would not require people and organizations to give up their deeply held religious beliefs. But now, as we’ve seen time and time again over the past few years, the threat to religious freedom is all too real.

Are supporters of same-sex marriage—including the many misguided Christians—willing to let Christian high schools, colleges, and seminaries be put out of business simply for holding a Biblical view of marriage? Sadly, I suspect they will follow what Rod Dreher calls the “law of merited impossibility”: “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Combined with the attack on RFRA laws, there might not be a place for such views in the for-profit marketplace either, even if non-profit schools and churches could survive without that status.

  • Greg Halvorson

    The left’s targeting of Christians through the vehicle of marriage is the most serious threat to liberty this nation has ever seen… The end game is, literally, the CRIMINALIZATION of the Bible, the banning of speech not Government-“approved,” and the FORCED embrace of sexual deviance in every aspect of life, from school, to work, to the altar and pulpit… Big Gay’s Thought Police will replace religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights, amendments 1 and 4, will be DEAD.

  • David Shane

    I still cannot get over how shallow and provincial the behavior of our society is on this topic. We’re talking about a view of marriage that was (by his claim) shared by the current president of the United States at the moment of his election just a few years ago. A view defended quite eloquently by people like the Clinton’s who are prominent members of the Democratic party and possible future presidents. A view that has been the consensus of human history and is still easily the dominant view in the world today. All that – and you can disagree with that view of marriage, but to imply that no thinking well-meaning person could possibly hold it and should therefore be expelled from civil society is simply crazy.

  • Jeff Hyams

    The MOST serious threat to liberty is government control of health care, which is, as a threat to liberty, equal to its failure to protect its citizens from rioters (especially those imported by those with a political agenda), which will lead to the acceptance of martial law.

  • W Meyer

    There is, in fact, nothing in the Constitution which would even suggest that government — which was created to serve us, after all — has the standing to adjudicate what policies any particular religious group may follow. From that standpoint, I cannot but think that the decision in the Bob Jones case was faulty. That’s not to say that what they were doing was right, much less Christian, only that the Court overstepped its Constitutional charter.

  • Ivan Fletcher

    The level of percieved christian persecution in these comments IS TOO DAMN HIGH. Gay marriage only affects you if you want it to folks- simple as that.

    • Marc Vander Maas

      I’d invite you to tell that to Baronelle Stutzman, Elaine Huguenin, the owners of Memories Pizza, Cynthia and Robert Gifford, etc. Pretty sure it affected all of them even though they didn’t want it to.

      I’d also point out that in arguments before the supreme court this week, the Solicitor General of the United States stated that, as far as Christian organizations that try to maintain Biblical standards relating to marriage, well, “it is going to be an issue.” I can assure you that those organizations don’t want gay marriage to affect them, too.

    • Or to people like Oscar Lopez, Dawn Stefanowicz and others who wrote briefs to the Supreme Court about how being children of parents in gay relationships damaged them and harmed their childhoods.

    • Veritas

      As we have seen with the affordable care act, and the federal government in suit against the little sisters of the poor, a group of nuns who care for those elderly with nothing, you are off base. This article is spot on about what is already clear. You are blind or naive.

    • Juridicus

      With all due respect, Mr. Fletcher, Gay marriage is not a personal choice any longer. It has now become a politicized issue which will be used to force others to accept a notion with which they may disagree. When the tax code is used to manipulate public policy (as it has been for years) it will not be long before that code is used to control the speech of churches.

    • Mo86

      You mean like those business owners who’ve been SUED?

  • US Christians

  • US Christians will need to learn from China’s underground church.

  • US churches will have to learn from China’s underground church. Bible colleges and seminaries will have to become smaller and underground or relocate to a friendly state, maybe Mexico. Students could do worse than going to school in Cancun.

  • AJ

    What strikes me in all this is the fact that one side can express their wants and beliefs and get supported whilst the other side gets castigated. Either we have a free society or we don’t. I also think that the Bob Jones case has no correlation with this. That was a matter of racial equality not religious beliefs. Why should Christians be punished for upholding their beliefs? In an all too secular society it is great to see people standing up for their religion in a non- violent manner. If the Supreme Court, in their ignorance and fear of the gay rights campaign, decide to remove tax exempt status from Christian schools, churches and hospitals then the backlash will be frightening. The bullying pink dollar will have triumphed once more to the detriment of the rest of American society. It is time to take a hard look at the small minority trying to build a power base against Christianity and think about their end game.

  • Dave Cobb

    Marriage is a union of two or more people. It has a civil side, and a religious side. Why does it have a civil side? What is accomplished, that can not be accomplished though contracts between those so joined together. It is called a civil union. All protections, All tax status questions can be resolved though such a civil union. I believe Marriage should be reserved as a religious rite. The religious rite having absolutely no civil recognition, or protections. Each religion would be free from any outside interference with it’s sacred rights. The Civil Unions would be regulated only to protect. Slavery, Pedaphilia, Fraud, etc. would incur civil and criminal action. This would give gays, and bigamists the civil rights they so badly need, while allowing religious institutions to worship and obey their God, or Gods as they see fit.

  • Poster

    Is same-sex marriage not the fruit of the error of religious freedom and separation of Church and State? The Novus Ordo religion has been promoting these errors and now want us to cry them a river when they get sent to re-education camp and lose their jobs and livelihood. Is same-sex marriage not the fruit of the false annulments granted by the Novus Ordo? Was not the sacrament of marriage attacked most skillfully by the modernists inside Catholic buildings? Haven’t “Christian” bakers been making “wedding” cakes for people who are not getting married for a long time before same-sex marriage (e.g. false annulments, divorce, marriage outside the Church)? If the Novus Ordo conservatives are serious about wanting to convert sinners, they need to convert to Catholicism, which places Christ as the King above the state, rejects separation of Church and State, and has nothing to do with Vatican II. In summation, I cannot support a person who complains about a problem that his own religion supports. Go read Mirari Vos and convert to Catholicism. And if you reject it, then accept the fruit of separation of Church and State with a smile instead of this continual complaining.

  • Mo86

    “Are supporters of same-sex marriage—including the many misguided Christians—willing to let Christian high schools, colleges, and seminaries be put out of business simply for holding a Biblical view of marriage?”

    Of course! (And no follower of Christ would be supporting such a thing.)

    • Guy

      Follower of Christ, will follow His word! We are in a prophetic time in history. God’s word has not changed, just because we are living in a Godless society. The word of God told us that this time would come, Jesus Himself said “as it was in the time of Sodom and Gomorrah so it shall it be in the time of the end.” We must continue to stand with God.

  • K J George Karrikkoottathil

    A true division – separation of Church and State must be the first priority. Second the State must leave the Church alone to preach, run educational institutions and other activities – total freedom.

  • K J George Karrikkoottathil

    Why there is opposition to interracial dating/marriage?