Thumbs Up for Scientology

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Ever since its founding some decades ago by a science-fiction author, the so-called religion of Scientology has been ridiculed as a bizarre cult.  Their "ritual audits" and practices seemingly designed for no other purpose than to flout tax laws, coupled with the nutty performances of celebrity adherents like Tom Cruise, has led some nations to completely ban Scientology.  The United States can't do that, of course, but there's no law that says we aren't allowed to treat Scientology with a guffaw and Bronx cheer.

We may have to rethink this approach, though, if a current court case proceeds to what appears to be its logical conclusion.  But first, some background.

Americans have long had the ability to deduct donations to religious groups from their income tax.  This tradition goes back before the income tax, and is reflected in the immunity from other taxes that churches enjoy - property tax, sales tax, even Social Security taxes in some cases.  There are two historical justification for this:

  1. Society benefits from the presence of religion; obeying the law so the cops don't catch you is all very well, but obeying the law lest an all-seeing God punish you is far more effective.
  2. Taxation inevitably brings with it some measure of control.

That latter point is a truism.  After all, "the power to tax is the power to destroy."  If churches were taxed, there would be all kinds of audits, appeals, and other activities intertwining church and state.  Anyone who believes in the separation of church and state has to support not taxing churches.

The bizarre and unusual "doctrines" of Scientology, however, have long raised the question of whether it even is a religion.  The IRS, naturally enough, took the position that it was not.

When Scientologists attempted to deduct their charges for "religious services", such as "ritual audits", the IRS rebuffed them on the plausible grounds that publishing a schedule of fees for various services was more characteristic of a business than of a religion.  The individuals involved took the matter to court, and here the situation becomes rather odd.

The IRS said the fees were not related to religion.  The plaintiffs said they were.  American courts traditionally are quite reluctant to argue with someone who claims that X is religion-related to them; we really don't want to go down the Roman road of having the government decide what's a religion and what's not.

So the IRS reached the following agreement with the Scientologists: The "church" paid some millions; the IRS agreed to accept that Scientology counted as a religion; and most importantly, Scientologists were to be allowed to deduct at least 80% of the fees paid for "religious training and services."

Let's think about this for a minute.  What constitutes "religious training and services"?  Would that be attending ordinary services?  No, couldn't be that; donations put in the offering plate are 100% deductible, and always have been.  "Religious training and services" must be something else.

So a Jewish couple, applying the letter of the agreement, began taking an 80% tax deduction for tuition paid for their children's attendance at a religious day school and for after-school classes in Jewish law.  That certainly sounds like "religious training and services," does it not?  The IRS didn't think so, and denied the deduction.  Back to court!

The thing is, it is Constitutionally illegal for the government to prefer one religion over another.  By the terms of the agreement with the Scientologists, the IRS must allow them that 80% deduction - but, in the words of the judge in the case, "The view of the IRS is that it can unconstitutionally violate the Constitution by establishing religion, by treating one religion more favorably than other religions in terms of what is allowed as deductions, and there can never be any judicial review of that?"

And now they're stuck.  The Scientologists, and the IRS, say that their agreement doesn't apply to what you'd think of as a normal Christian (or Jewish, Catholic, or Muslim) children's school - but the agreement is secret, and both sides have declined to present it to the court.  On the face of things, and apparently in the opinion of the judge, what the IRS is doing is patently unconstitutional.

The agreement with the Scientologists cannot be undone.  So if this case proceeds to its logical conclusion, anyone who sends their children to a religious school may be permitted an 80% tax deduction of the tuition.

What an earthshaking, and badly needed, development that would be!  Anything that widens the available choices of parents, and increases competition between failing public schools and other alternatives, is to be encouraged.

And all thanks to the legal shenanigans of the cult of Scientology.  Every cloud has its silver lining!

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
you might find this interesting
February 11, 2008 11:52 PM
But do you really think Scientology should be given religious status?
February 13, 2008 3:47 PM

The Church of Scientology is one of the most controversial new religious movements to have arisen in the 20th century. It has often been described as a cult that financially defrauds and abuses its members, charging exorbitant fees for its spiritual services. The Church of Scientology has consistently used litigation against such critics, and its aggressiveness in pursuing its foes has been condemned as harassment. Further controversy has focused on Scientology's belief that souls ("thetans") reincarnate and have lived on other planets before living on Earth. Former members say that some of Hubbard's writings on this remote extraterrestrial past, included in confidential Upper Levels, are not revealed to practitioners until they have paid thousands of dollars to the Church of Scientology. Another controversial belief held by Scientologists is that the practice of psychiatry is destructive and abusive and must be abolished

November 4, 2010 10:20 AM
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