Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph.
The Catholic parish of St. Joseph’s — now run by the Dominican Order — worships in the oldest Catholic church building in Manhattan. Built in 1833, it served the community of Greenwich Village before there was Central Park, the Empire State building or even the subway. Far from being a museum or mere relic of the past, the parish today ministers to college students and professionals — those who have been in New York their whole lives, and those visiting just for the weekend. Each Mass is filled with women and men of different backgrounds and nationalities.
Dorothy Day prayed here. There is a soup kitchen that serves hundreds each week. A parish elementary school is right next door.
St. Joseph’s is also neighbor to the famous Stonewall Inn and has served the spiritual needs of its visitors as well. But in the face of the latest same-sex marriage ruling, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage has frustrated activists who want religious organizations to either bring their teachings into accord with the newest cause or to be limited from full civic participation, and thus punish long-serving institutions that will not submit to their demands.
After the Obergefell decision, Time magazine writer Mark Oppenheimer was quick to declare that the state should “abolish, or greatly diminish” property tax exemptions for churches that “dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality.”
Punishing “dissent” seems a strange new role for the American government. In the mid-twentieth century, the Catholic church was a leading advocate against anti-miscegenation laws. The church was able to take a stand contrary to the state on marriage and not be penalized for it, a position now almost unquestionably supported by Americans. And despite the confidence of those like Oppenheimer, the dissenters aren’t even a minority in the more recent marriage controversy. Most Americans favor religious liberty, and a plurality oppose Obergefell.
Allowing conscientious objection is an acknowledgment that the state does not have all the answers. The state has an obligation to make laws, but the state has no obligation to be correct. The independent voices that critique the state make the state better, and should not be silenced. Lose churches, lose the independent voices that prevent the state from having an absolute say in complicated moral matters.
In addition to the alternative moral voice that the church provides, the Catholic church is one of the leading charitable institutions in the country. But this matters little to a militant ideological movement that, intending to prevent discrimination, has prevented churches from doing certain charitable activities and seeks to “ostracize” them even more. The first wave has been the shutting down of decades-old Catholic adoption services around the country, including in the Archdiocese of Washington. The next wave, hinted at by Justice Samuel Alito and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, will be universities and educational institutions — including the many Catholic schools for the underprivileged. And after that will be the places of worship themselves.
Oppenheimer identifies the real problem with dissolving tax exemptions, too, though in a dismissive and historically illiterate manner. Churches in important locations will be penalized for the simple reason of where they were built. “If it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it.” Parishes like St. Dominic’s in Washington or St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village could be added to this list. But they were built for everyone, rich and poor, and their work should not be penalized because property values have skyrocketed as decades have gone by. Removing the tax-exempt status of churches simply adds an additional tax to regular churchgoers, and most of the congregations at these historical places of worship couldn’t sustain the property taxes for more than a few months. If they can’t foot the bill, local places of worship will simply have to close, and with them the community services they provide.
Losing a local church would be damaging to its worshippers and the community at large, but even still, the resilience of the faithful can overcome the limitations of property loss and a lack of governmental support. That said, it is in the state’s best interest to protect those voices that at the moment respectfully oppose its laws. By prohibiting faith-based conscientious objection, institutions will be limited in their ability to speak independently without fear of punishment, and some of the largest charities in America will be shuttered. Churches have defended and served the American people both spiritually and materially for hundreds of years. Now it’s time to defend the church.
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