Atheists Challenge the Tax Exemption for Religious Groups

RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

Thousands of atheists and unbelievers gathered Saturday on the National Mall for the Reason Rally. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

How much money does the U.S. government forgo by not taxing religious institutions? According to a University of Tampa professor, perhaps as much as $71 billion a year.

Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the total cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions — on property, donations, business enterprises, capital gains and “parsonage allowances,” which permit clergy to deduct housing costs.

Their article appears in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, an organization of nontheists. U.S. tax law grants religious groups and other nonprofits the exemptions because of their charitable nature.

And while the authors do not claim theirs is a comprehensive or unbiased appraisal, their findings have raised eyebrows in the nontheist community, which has long sought to eliminate the tax exemptions on the grounds that they unfairly favor religious institutions.

Stuttering Clergy Spread the Word

RNS photo courtesy Gerald McDermott

Rev. Gerald McDermott at the christening of his fifth grandchild. RNS photo courtesy Gerald McDermott

The Rev. Tom Sherrod loathed to "declare" a couple man and wife.

As a stutterer, Sherrod always had problems with hard “c” sounds, and the “c” in “declare” was a doozy. “P” sounds weren’t easy either, and the Bible is full of them.

“If I tried to read, I would lock onto words,” said Sherrod, a North Carolina hospital chaplain who is an ordained United Methodist minister. “I tried to steer clear of certain Scriptures.”

Now, after intensive speech therapy, Sherrod publicly reads aloud whatever parts of the liturgy he likes. But before he learned to control the stutter, life -- as it can be for many stutterers -- was an exhausting exercise in avoiding some tough words and muscling through others.

Womanhood and Discerning 'The Call'

Woman reading Bible, Jacob Gregory /

Woman reading Bible, Jacob Gregory /

I’ve moved five times in five years of marriage. My husband is a pastor. I am a journalist. He is forever discerning, forever visioning— I am forever antsy.

This latest move to Washington, D.C., led me to think a lot about the “call” to serve. My husband and I were dating, then engaged, then married during his four years at seminary. I suppose I knew what I was getting myself into. (Nope, not one little bit.) 

During those years, it was drilled into my brain that even though I felt a “calling” as a writer, a storyteller, etc., it was extremely different from the call. 

Read: What your husband is doing is more important than anything you will ever do in your lifetime — ever. Except maybe have his progeny, and then, still, it’s a toss-up.

10 Reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained For Ministry

Portrait of a young pastor, Andrejs Zavadskis /

Portrait of a young pastor, Andrejs Zavadskis /

In light of some recent intense posts - Ultimate Fighting Jesus and Conversation with Rob Bell (re: women in ministry), this list is too funny not to share.

But the brutal fact is that the matter of gender violence isn’t all that funny either. Statistics about gender inequality via UN and UNICEF are even more discouraging.

Regardless where you sit, stand, or wrestle with the issue of women in church leadership, I thought this satirical list was worth sharing for both laughter and even reflection because that’s what good satire forces us to do.  And for what it’s worth, I’d encourage you to read some of my thoughts about why I believe  women should be included in all levels of church leadership.

For Clergy, Lost Faith Can Lead to Lost Family, Jobs

Priest Collar, AISPIX by Image Source /

Priest Collar, AISPIX by Image Source /

The Clergy Project is an online support network for pastors who have lost their faith and found atheism.

The goal of the project is not to pull pastors from the pulpit, but to provide those who have already lost their faith with a safe place to anonymously discuss what comes next. The hope is they will eventually feel strong enough to put their families, friends and careers on the line and announce their atheism.

“When you leave the ministry, you can lose all of that, “ said Dan Barker, a former minister, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a founder of The Clergy Project. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Who am I now?’ . . . . The Clergy Project is a place where their self-respect is restored.”

The Court Has Spoken. Now What?: Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC

"Stop the Intersection of Church and State." Image via

"Stop the Intersection of Church and State." Image via Wylio,

With its unanimous ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Church & School v. EEOC last month, the United States Supreme Court handed down one of its most important church-state decisions in decades. The First Amendment bars ministers from suing the religious communities they serve regarding the terms and conditions of their employment, it said.

The Court affirmed what lower courts had held for decades: Religious bodies, not the government, must have the power to decide which individuals will minister to the faithful. This doctrine is known as the “ministerial exception.” The Court also held that the former teacher in this case, Cheryl Perich, was a minister and thus her lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) could not proceed.

An important aspect of the Hosanna-Tabor ruling is the Court’s recognition that there is simply is no good way for the state to police these matters – it inevitably ends up intruding on core religious decisions like who should speak to and for the church. When a minister is fired, the religious employer cites a religious reason for doing so, such as sermons that are inconsistent with Biblical teachings and a failure to challenge congregants to follow Jesus Christ. If the minister then sues the church for discrimination, he or she claims the religious reason wasn’t the “real” reason for the church’s actions; it was just a pretext for discrimination.

Til Death (or Dementia or Illness) Us Do Part?

Philip & June Weeks have been married for 58 years. RNS photo/The Weekses

Philip and June Weeks have been married for 58 years. RNS photo courtesy Philip and June Weeks.

Philip Weeks fondly remembers the days when his wife of 56 years, June, was a nurse and an artist whose paintings were compared to Rembrandt's.

Her paintings still hang in their home in Lynchburg, Va., but almost everything else has changed for the couple after she was diagnosed with possible Alzheimer's and then an abrupt form of dementia.

In one moment, the retired Charismatic Episcopal bishop said, she would lean over to kiss him. "An hour later, she looked at me and said, 'Who are you?'" he recalled.

When the person you married goes through a dramatic change, what's a spouse to do? As Valentine's Day approaches, clergy, ethicists and brain injury experts agree: There are no easy answers.

I Love Jesus, But I Swear A Little

Swearing. Photo via Getty Images.

Swearing. Photo via Getty Images.

An Open Invitation to Unfriend Me on Facebook, Stop Following Me on Twitter and Discontinue Reading My Blog if You Need To:

If you are a Christian who takes offense at swear words or believes for some reason that clergy should never be cranky or irritated, then I am not the person for you to follow.  It’s ok.  You don’t actually need me. The entire publishing arm of the Christian Industrial Complex (I believe my friend Shane Claiborne coined that term) has a great deal of material that is just for you!

Corporate Greed, Meet Coconut Theology

Coconut vessels. Images via Wylio.

Coconut vessels. Images via Wylio.

It's a clear sign something's wrong when talks on "free trade" turn an island paradise into an armed camp.

Hawaii is on lockdown this week while the U.S. tries to hammer out a regional trade agreement that's being called "NAFTA for the Pacific." While some mean this as a compliment, Hawaii's faith and labor leaders are lifting their voices against an agreement they believe will put profits for banks and corporations above workers' rights, indigenous culture, and local communities. Those leaders are drawing on the Pacific region's indigenous "Coconut Theology" to provide an alternative vision of the common good.

"Coconut Theology came out of our contextual understanding of the Gospel in the Pacific," said Rev. Piula Alailima, pastor of Wesley Methodist Church in Honolulu and a core leader in the community organizing group Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE). "When we break the body of the coconut and partake of the juice, it's a symbol of the body and blood of Christ, of sacrifice, of community and the common good."