When Caesar Wants Your Tithe

Imagine government officials marching into your church, grabbing the collection plate, and dumping the money into bags marked "Property of the U.S. Government." That, in essence, is what the Justice department is trying to do right now. The Department is embroiled in a Minnesota bankruptcy case, in which a judge ordered an Evangelical Free church to hand over money it received in tithes from Bruce and Nancy Young. The Youngs were owners of an electric company and regularly tithed 10 percent of their income to the church. But in 1992 the couple declared bankruptcy—and that's when their troubles began. The judge ordered the Evangelical Free church to cough up $13,500 that the Youngs had placed in the offering plate the year before they filed for bankruptcy so that the money could be distributed among the couple's creditors. The Justice Department intervened in the appeal process, agreeing with the judge. The church has refused to give up the money. The case hinges on a law permitting the government to seize any money a company gives away up to one year prior to declaring bankruptcy. It's a law designed to prevent unscrupulous people from hiding funds in order to cheat creditors. But in this case, even the judge concedes that the Youngs did not commit fraud. They were tithing out of religious conviction—just as they had done for 20 years. Since there's no fraud involved, what's the big fuss? Why is the Justice Department concerning itself over an insignificant sum donated for purely religious reasons? It's a troubling question. For if the ruling stands, it will deliver a serious blow to religious freedom in America. Like prayer and church attendance, tithing is a religious exercise. Christians are commanded to tithe in verses such as Deuteronomy 14:22. In fact, this is just the sort of religious act that Congress meant to protect with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed only seven months ago. The act restores the traditional interpretation of the First Amendment, stating 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 tithing case? Clearly not. Yet the Justice Department is acting as though there were. In essence, the department is arguing that protecting creditors' right to a few thousand dollars is a compelling state interest—and that it actually overrides the First Amendment protection of religious exercise. If this ruling stands, it will establish a very dangerous principle. Think of it: If the government can override the First Amendment on such paltry grounds, then it can override the amendment virtually at will. The Justice Department's position is a slap in the face to thousands of Americans all across the political spectrum who fought to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We can only pray that these same Americans will once again take a stand for religious freedom now. Please call your representatives in Congress and tell them you deeply oppose the Justice Department's position. Otherwise, Uncle Sam may show up at your church some day, demanding that you give to Caesar what rightfully belongs to God.


Chuck Colson


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