Religious colleges concerned about losing tax-exempt status

The Baltimore Sun
Religious colleges concerned about tax-exempt status in wake of legalization of gay marriage.

In the undergraduate catalog of Maple Springs Baptist Bible College and Seminary, there's a list of rules students must pledge to follow.

Rules like No. 15 have officials at religious schools nationwide worried about the future of their tax-exempt status. It says students at the college in Capitol Heights must "ascribe to the biblical standards for human sexuality of heterosexual relationships within the context of marriage" or risk dismissal.

For religious institutions around the country with similar mandates, the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage has prompted concerns about its potential impact.

A 1983 Supreme Court ruling allowed the Internal Revenue Service to revoke a school's tax-exempt status if it banned interracial relationships. In Bob Jones University v. United States, the fundamentalist Christian college in South Carolina lost that status after the court ruled that its policies violated "a most fundamental national public policy."

After the Bob Jones precedent was mentioned during a hearing on the same-sex marriage case, more than 70 religious educational institutions sent a letter to Republican congressional leaders. The schools expressed concern that the marriage decision could someday form the basis of a challenge to their tax-exempt status. The letter was signed by the Association of Christian Schools International, which has 70 member institutions in Maryland, including seven in Baltimore.

Local legal experts, however, differ in their assessment of the potential impact.

"I do believe that in the next 20 years, discrimination based on sexual orientation is going to go the way of race discrimination in regards to their tax-exempt status," said Odeana Neal, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in sexual orientation and the law. "It will eventually be a matter of public policy that discrimination on the basis of sex orientation is wrong. Are they right to be worried? Yeah, they're right to be worried."

University of Maryland law school professor Andrew Blair-Stanek noted that 16 years separate Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court invalidated laws against interracial marriage, and the Bob Jones case.

"It's possible that in 16 years the issue will work out the same way, based on the recent same-sex marriage ruling," said Blair-Stanek, who specializes in tax law. "It's also ... possible that it never happens."

Asked whether he was concerned about his college's tax-exempt status, Eddie A. Montgomery, president of ACSI-member Family Bible Institute College and Seminary in Baltimore, did not respond directly but said he believes homosexuality is a sin.

John W. Storey, the northeast regional director for the ACSI, said he's concerned that the "religious liberty and freedom" of religious institutions is being put in jeopardy.

"We do believe that religious organizations should be able to keep their tax-exempt status as any school should be able to," he said. "If we were to lose that, it would challenge the financial integrity of our schools."

Maple Springs officials did not respond to requests for comment.

trichman@baltsun.com

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