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CHURCH TAX PRIVILEGES OUT?

In several courts throughout the land the church’s traditional right to tax exemptions is being tested. Before the Supreme Court of the United States is a suit brought by a New York lawyer questioning the whole theory of tax exemption of church property. There is little personal stake in the case for the lawyer bringing the suit. He owns a 22 by 29 foot plot of ground on Staten Island valued at $100.00 and taxed at $5.24 per year. But he insists that this tax is too much. His argument is that tax exemption for churches violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution because tax exemption for the churches increases his own taxes, puts money into the hands of the churches and thereby establishes religion. If his contention were supported by the Supreme Court, it would have a profound effect upon the nation’s churches whose real estate holdings are estimated at $102 billion.

While it is unlikely that the present tax exemption status of churches will be changed, there is a problem of another kind which has long plagued the government. This problem has to do with businesses and real estate holdings owned by various church groups which bring oftentimes huge profits into the church, but which are also tax exempt under present law. It is quite likely that this system will presently be changed.

California has already passed a law which requires state corporation taxes to be paid on income from businesses unrelated to church activities. All churches and religious organizations must file an annual form with the state specifying their income.

The United States House of Representatives has also passed a similar measure by a wide margin. The bill includes the following particulars:

—People who make contributions to religious organizations can still deduct these contributions from their income tax.

—Foundations operated by religious groups are still exempt from tax.

—Businesses purchased by churches and leased back to private individuals will be required to pay taxes if the bill becomes law.

—Any businesses owned and operated by religious groups will be required to pay the same tax as any corporation.

Present day trends and re-interpretations of the meaning of the First Amendment suggest that the possibility is very real that the government will collect more and more money from religious groups.

SABBATH OBSERVANCE IN THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY

Grand Rapids is probably unique among big cities in the United States in that, for many years, most business places have remained closed on Sundays. For many years, in many cities, stores remained open on the Lord’s Sabbath and conducted business as usual. Grand Rapids has been one exception. Not as if all stores remained closed on Sunday—there were always gas stations, restaurants, a few small “liquor stores” open. But the large stores, the chains, the department stores remained closed.

This is apparently about to change.

It had been coming on for quite a while. Here and there a larger store would announce Sunday shopping hours as well as week-day opening times. Some in the church fussed about it. But it all attracted little attention.

Now suddenly the issue has come into the headlines. And it all happened because one large chain of stores, Meijer Inc., decided to open some of its stores on Sunday. Apparently many “church people” shopped at these stores because the ruckus created at the announcement of their ppening could be heard all over Western Michigan.

The result has been that many church people have banded together in order to force these stores to close once again. The weapon at their disposal is the boycott of these stores. Bumper stickers, ads, radio announcements, and pamphlets constantly urge upon us to do our shopping in stores that are closed on Sunday. And this is done in the name of religion.

There is something extremely distasteful to me about the whole controversy.

I do not want to be misunderstood. There is a grievous sin involved in doing business on Sunday. This is the desecration of the Lord’s Day. It is a deliberate trampling down of God’s sacred laws. It is a sin as great in magnitude as the breaking of all or any of God’s commandments. And those who open their stores and do business on Sunday shall have to answer to a holy God for their awful violation of His holy law.

But there is hypocrisy here, and one can smell it a mile away. The hypocrisy is, of course, first of all, on the side of Mr. Meijer. In an ad which appeared in the local newspaper, Mr. Meijer wrote: “But the facts are undeniable. Many people want the opportunity to shop on Sunday. And they express their desire in the strongest possible way, by shopping in great numbers at the many stores already open on Sunday. We cannot deny them that right. If we expect to stay in business we must serve people when they want to be served. That’s our job. Please remember we must serve all the people of Western Michigan.” This is a miserable justification for Sunday opening. The whole ad is apparently intended to convey the impression that the only reason the stores of Meijer Inc. are opening is the noble desire to do service to the people of Western Michigan. The ad leads the impression that the management of the stores has the obligation to give people some “right” which is inherently theirs. But the crass commercialism is so thinly disguised as to be almost funny.

The trouble is that the hypocrisy is on both sides. For one thing, all Meijers Stores are not open on Sunday here in town, but have been open for many years in other cities in Michigan, such as Kalamazoo. For another thing, while we are urged to shop at stores closed on Sunday, many of these stores which are closed here in town are members of large chains which are open in other cities, where there are not so many people who object. Why are not protests raised against all these stores? And why were not protests raised long ago against Meijers for being open in Kalamazoo?

But this is not all. Many stores which are closed on Sunday have stickers in their windows which read: “Out of respect for the Christian tradition, this store is closed on Sunday.” This in itself is not a very good reason to be closed. If a store is only closed “out of respect for the Christian tradition,” whatever that may mean, there is certainly no Sabbath observance involved in those who own, manage, or operate these stores. Their reasons for being closed are not God’s reasons for demanding Sabbath observance.

Besides, many people who are creating a big fuss about the new policy of Meijers are the same people who themselves think nothing of traveling on a summer or winter vacation on Sunday; who in some instances are glued to their TV sets all Sunday afternoon to watch professional football or other favorite programs, who themselves violate the Sabbath in many ways as evil as opening a store. It might be well to cast the beam out of our own eye before we try to remove a mote from someone else’s.

Does all this mean that we should passively sit by and watch the Sabbath desecrated? I do not think so. I am not in favor particularly of the use of boycotts to gain the point. This is the use of coercion—economic coercion; and this is an illegitimate weapon at best. But, this is not really the point yet. The point is that economic coercion does little to bring about true Sabbath observance. Supposing that the boycott works—something highly dubitable. In that case the stores will all be closed; but that will certainly not guarantee any wonderful change of heart in those who operate their businesses. It will not guarantee Sabbath observance on the part of those now opening their stores. It all comes down to the old question: are we interested in outward character reform, social change? or is our concern the inward change of the heart? the true observance of God’s law from the heart?

There is altogether too much emphasis on this outward observance of the commandments today. To cite but one pertinent example, it is ironic in the extreme that these. same people who speak so loudly about stores closing on Sunday nevertheless hail, as outstanding Christians, various sports heroes in professional football and baseball who, while they profess the Christian faith, play their games before huge paying crowds every Sunday of the year. Why are their actions condoned?

Does this mean that we need take no interest in the whole matter? I think not. It is certainly legitimate for the Christian to protest such Sabbath desecration. It is even legitimate to want stores closed in order that the church of Christ may worship God in an atmosphere conducive to worship. Paul urges upon Timothy, in a different situation, to play for those in authority that “we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” And indeed, our concern is legitimate when we see the trend of the times towards more and more Sunday labor depriving the people of God of their jobs and their livelihood.

But any protest we make must be on the basis of God’s Word. It must be directed to the principle of the thing. It must be concerned with the true and full observance of the law of God and not some mere outward observance. It must be a protest made properly and not through the use of force. Probably such a protest will go unheeded. This is not the point. We must not be tempted to use force because, as it is said, these men understand only the language of the pocketbook. Hurt them in the pocketbook and they will listen. Listen to what? Listen to a club over their heads? Listen to a plea for some “respect for the tradition of religion in the community?” They must listen to the Word of God. And if they will not do that, we must commit the matter into the hands of our God Who has told us that all these things, and many more, will take place before the Lord comes back.