Bankrupting the First Amendment

For 20 years a Minnesota couple named Bruce and Nancy Young tithed 10 percent of their income to their church—an important part of their religious activity supposedly protected by the First Amendment. But then the Youngs were forced to declare bankruptcy. That’s when they discovered how shaky their First Amendment rights really were. For years the Youngs had owned an electrical contracting business. When they declared bankruptcy in 1992, a judge ordered their church, Crystal Evangelical Free, to hand over $13,500 that the Youngs had placed in the offering plate during the year before they filed for bankruptcy. The judge wanted the money to be distributed among the couple’s creditors. The case hinged on a law permitting the government to seize any money a company gives away up to one year prior to declaring bankruptcy. The law is designed to prevent unscrupulous people from hiding funds in order to cheat their creditors. But in this case, even the judge conceded that the Youngs did not commit fraud. They were tithing out of religious conviction—just as they had done for 20 years. Over the next five years, Crystal Evangelical Free spent nearly $300,000 in legal fees fighting off the creditors. Last year the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), ruled in favor of the Crystal Evangelical Free Church. But this summer, the Supreme Court overturned that decision, after striking down RFRA in a separate case. The ruling against the church outrages Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. As Grassley points out, for many Americans "tithing is an important act of worship which is required by the Bible. It is terribly offensive to me to think of a federal judge ordering that this act of worship be undone." If this ruling stands, it will deliver another serious blow to religious freedom in America. Tithing is just the sort of religious activity that Congress meant to protect when it passed RFRA. The act stated that freedom of religious exercise may be overridden only if there’s a compelling state interest at stake. Is there a compelling state interest in the Youngs’ tithing case? Clearly not. Senator Grassley is drafting legislation that would prevent creditors from seizing money that people like the Youngs gave to a church or charity before their businesses went into bankruptcy. It would protect charitable contributions of up to 15 percent of the debtor’s income. As Richard Flint, an expert witness for Crystal Evangelical Free put it, "the bill acknowledges that contributions to church and charity are grounded in sound moral and public policies and thus should be encouraged, not discouraged through bankruptcy proceedings." You and I ought to be calling our senators and asking them to get behind Senator Grassley’s legislation. It’s called the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act of 1997. But Christians must also act to keep First Amendment abuses like this from occurring in the first place. Ask your representatives to support the restoration of RFRA. Call BreakPoint today, and we’ll send you a RFRA fact sheet. Tithing is a religious duty, and the government has no business interfering with it. Steve Gould, the pastor of Crystal Evangelical Free, was absolutely right when he told the Senate that bankruptcy laws "must be rewritten—because the Scriptures won’t be."


Chuck Colson


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