Seek Ye First the Protection of Property Rights....

When Screwtape, depicted by C.S. Lewis as a mid-level administrator in hell’s Lowerarchy, gloated that “Prosperity knits a man to this world,” he might well have been thinking of tax-exempt religious corporations.

The “Utah Compromise” on religious liberty, which was enacted with the conspicuous support of the LDS Church, offers a splendid case study of the depths of cravenness to which a corporate church will descend in order to preserve its tax exemption. The headline selected by the LDS Church-owned Deseret News captures the import of that ignoble legislation: “LDS Church’s chief lawyer says not all religious freedoms should be defended the same.”

When “rights” become the subject of triage, they cease to be rights and mutate into conditional, revocable privileges. All legitimate rights are property rights, and all property rights are absolute. They can, and must, be exercised simultaneously by believers, agnostics, and atheists alike, and are reconciled through commerce and contract.

Believers and non-believers of all sexes and gender identities should seek first the protection of property rights, and all other individual liberties will be added unto them.  Arguably the defining liberty is the right to say “no” — to eschew commerce, as well as engage in it, to accept or decline an invitation to associate with others.

Physical Gold & Silver in your IRA. Get the Facts.

In a free society, the officially licensed larceny called “taxation” would not exist, and productive people of all descriptions would keep everything they have earned, saved, or inherited. In an unfree but relatively civilized society, religious institutions (and non-religious charities) would be tax-immune, rather than tax-exempt. The Regime dispenses exemptions in the service of the true purpose of the income tax system, which is social engineering. This was pointed out seventy years ago by Beardsley Ruml, who at the time was Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

For corporate churches, tax exemption defines the length of their leash.

Digested to its essence, the Utah Compromise – which is being presented as a model for other states – treats the public expression of “religious liberty” in the “Love Wins” age in purely institutional terms. Religious individuals are free to believe in traditional views of marriage, sexuality, and “gender” – but only to the extent that those beliefs have no tangible impact on their public conduct, beyond the occasional Facebook post or letter to the editor. Those “core” liberties, furthermore, are highly contingent and subject to further restriction without notice.

The “non-negotiable” core rights supposedly protected by the “Compromise” legislation, explained Elder Lance B. Wickman, General Counsel for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, consist of the right of religious people to worship privately, in their homes and congregations. They are also “entitled to the same rights of free speech and expression in the public square as nonbelievers,” and should be protected against official discrimination on the basis of belief.

Near the “core” can be found “freedoms that pertain to religiously important nonprofit functions carried on by religious organizations,” Wickman continues. This includes the right to make hiring and personnel decisions “based on religious criteria” and to carry out charitable outreach “without substantial interference by government and without being forced to engage in activities that are fundamentally contrary to their beliefs.”

In matters of commerce, however, “our expectations of unfettered religious freedom must be tempered,” Wickman advised. Religious believers are free – at least for now – to practice their faith at home and within the shelter of a government-recognized corporate church, but once they leave the reservation they “must be willing to make prudential compromises.”

“Preserving the ability of business owners to conduct every aspect of their businesses according to their religious beliefs will be impossible,” according to Wickman. “And the Church itself” – in this case, the LDS Church, but the principle can apply to any government-licensed denomination – “is not in a position to fight that fight if doing so comes at the expense of more core religious freedoms. Protecting those freedoms must remain the priority, or we risk losing even them.” (Emphasis added.)

The essence of Wickman’s message to religious believers is this: Be content to pray and worship at home, and within a corporate edifice devoted to that purpose, but also understand that the corporate church will not be an ally if you assert your property rights by declining business opportunities that conflict with your moral values. Yes, the state can force a Christian baker, or florist, or wedding photographer, to offer services for a same-sex wedding ceremony, because this would be among what Wickman calls “appropriate compromises in the interest of fairness to others and peace.”

“Some might be shocked to hear this,” he continues, “but not all religious freedoms are equally important.” Government-dictated violations of property rights in the name of combating discrimination are “sustainable compromises,” Wickman asserts. But “barring someone from praying in his own home would be an intolerable act of tyranny,” he insists.

To anyone who actually understands and genuinely cherishes individual liberty – not only freedom of conscience, but freedom of association and property rights in principle – both of the impositions to which Wickman refers are intolerable. For Wickman and the corporation he serves, the prime directive is to protect the institutional interests of the church – not the individual liberties of its members. This will require that people who are serious about living according to their convictions, rather than simply discussing them, embrace “sustainable compromises,” which are merely temporizing measures intended to preserve corporate tax exemptions for religious institutions.

This is made clear by Wickman’s admission that “it is now virtually certain that theories once used to deny tax-exempt status to racist organizations eventually will be invoked to challenge the tax-exempt status of churches that as a matter of doctrine reject same-sex marriage or have sexual worthiness standards.”

What Wickman didn’t acknowledge was that the corporate Church he represents has already accepted limitations on its ability to defend its views in the political arena. Robin Fretwell Wilson, the University of Illinois law professor who drafted the “Utah Compromise,” has candidly admitted that the so-called “Grand Compromise bill” involved “the trading of LGBT rights for some modest political speech protections.”

Summarizing the “Grand Compromise” legislation, the New York Times observed that “The bill … [did] not address what has become one of the most divisive questions on gay rights nationwide: whether individual business owners, based on their religious beliefs, can refuse service to gay people or gay couples — for example, a baker who refuses to make a cake for a gay wedding.”

Wickman’s address made it clear that the property rights of private business owners are expendable in the sacred cause of protecting the corporate privileges of tax-exempt religious institutions. That calculation is based upon the assumption that it is possible to placate a movement that has proven to be implacable, as we are reminded by the disposition of a recent civil action in California.

Facing the threat of a spurious class action suit, Spark Network, Inc, which owns and operates a large number of dating websites, agreed to make its ChristianMingle site accessible to homosexual customers. Three years ago, Aaron Werner of Los Angeles and Richard Wright of San Francisco, filed separate complaints claiming that the Christian-oriented dating site violated state anti-discrimination law by offering “men seeking women” and “women seeking men” options.

Those suits, which sought “compensatory, treble and punitive damages,” eventually yielded a joint settlement under which the website would remove the heterosexual language from that dating site – and several others, including dating sites focusing on Catholic, Mormon, and Adventist markets. The company was required to pay each plaintiff $9,000 as a “service award for the efforts on behalf of the Settlement Class,” and nearly a half-million dollars to the attorneys who brokered this act of state-facilitated extortion.

Significantly, the same order demanded that Spark, Inc. “will continue to operate Crosspaths which facilitates faith-based same sex matching and that Spark will continue to operate Crosspaths and provide same or similar same sex matching until at least December 21, 2016.”

In other words, Spark did not discriminateagainst gay people interested in pursuing “faith-based” relationships. The purpose of the suit was not to require an accommodation for gay customers but to compel the company to discard sites of exclusive interest to heterosexual Christians because the very existence of such voluntary associations is considered impermissible.

Under the formula described by Wickman, this is an entirely acceptable outcome, because it doesn’t implicate “core” issues, such as the right of a religious individual to pray at home, or the security of a corporate church’s tax exemption. He and others of his persuasion have badly miscalculated if they believe that the cultural totalitarians who promoted that lawsuit will relent until they have broken all non-conforming institutions on the wheel of their malicious ambition.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts