Internal Revenue Service

Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th! Now for an update on Tennesseans arguing about 'online' ministers

Happy July 4th, everybody. This is certainly a day to celebrate the various forms of freedom that Americans cherish — including some that are pretty confusing, when push comes to shove.

I am thinking, in particular, about the First Amendment and the edgy legal battle that is unfolding here in Tennessee about the state’s ability to enforce a law setting some standards about who is an ordained minister and who is not. If you want to catch up on press coverage of this battle, click here for my first post and then here for the podcast discussing this topic: “This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

It’s time for an update, since the status of click-that-mouse ministers with the Universal Life Church ended up in front of a federal judge yesterday. The Nashville Tennessean team produced a story for Gannett newspapers — which now dominate the volunteer state — that ran with this headline: “Judge questions 'rational basis' of state law blocking ministers ordained online from performing marriages.

The bottom line: Gannett is covering this case as a battle about LGBTQ rights, since many same-sex couples choose nontraditional ministers to perform their marriage rites. There is little or no evidence that pros at The Tennessean realize that this case will pivot on the U.S. government’s attempts — think Internal Revenue Service — to establish some guidelines to help officials determine when religious institutions exist primarily for the purpose of profit or fraud. Here’s the overture:

A federal judge on Wednesday repeatedly pressed state lawyers to explain a "rational basis" for a new Tennessee law that bans ministers ordained online from performing marriages — and he didn't seem to get an answer that satisfied him.

Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw said a lawsuit challenging the law raised "serious constitutional issues" that should be considered at trial by the end of the year. Until then, Crenshaw said, ministers ordained online could continue to perform legal marriages.

The Universal Life Church Monastery, a ministry that ordains ministers online, sued Tennessee over the law last month, saying it violated religious protections of the First Amendment among other things.

Yes, there certainly are “serious constitutional issues” at stake here. I think any serious church-state activist — left or right — would agree with that statement and with the judge’s decision that fights over this Tennessee law deserve a serious day in court.

So what are Tennessee lawmaker’s worried about? We will get to that.

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Yo, journalists: There are real church-state issues linked to the Church of Cannabis

Yo, journalists: There are real church-state issues linked to the Church of Cannabis

Journalists who took the time to dig into the history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- all the way back into ancient times, as in the Clinton White House -- will have run into references to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case called Employment Division v. Smith.

That case focused on this question: Did Native Americans -- in this case workers at a private drug rehabilitation group -- have the right to take peyote as part of a religious ritual linked to similar rites in their heritage dating back centuries? The conservative side of the court said "no," while liberals dissented and said the decision denied Native Americans the free exercise of their religious beliefs.

Justice Antonin Scalia famously said that this kind of religious liberty appeal would "open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind."

A nearly unanimous U.S. Congress begged to differ and passed RFRA, backed by a stunningly broad church-state coalition -- basically everyone from Pat Robertson to the American Civil Liberties Union. It was a law inspired by some strange and messy legal cases, but as my graduate-school mentor at Baylor University's Church-State Studies program used to say: Your religious liberty has been purchased for you by people with whom you might not want to have dinner.

In other words, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause is very powerful and, unless you are dealing with fraud, profit or a clear threat to life and health, courts are not supposed to mess with religious doctrines and practice, even when dealing with messy cases.

If you are following the news right now, you know where I am headed: Bill Levin and his First Church of Cannabis in Indiana.

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A ghost in here? IRS targeting Jews too?

Fear not religion news reporters, you too can jump into one of the hottest news stories on the wires. Buried deep within an article reporting on the Internal Revenue Services’ harassment of conservative advocacy groups lurks  a religious liberty news story. That may not sound too exciting but you could rephrase the story pitch this way for your editor: Has the IRS created a religious test in order to define what it means to be a loyal Jew?

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