Follow the Money
By Eileen McNamara
January 25, 2006
But that is the argument of religious organizations trying to kill legislation that would require churches in Massachusetts to do what every other tax-exempt charity in the state is already obliged to do: open their financial books to the public. The filing fee and accounting costs would be too burdensome, they say.
This is called a smokescreen.
Lobbyists have not been prowling the corridors of the State House trying to defeat this bill because religious organizations cannot afford it. They are trying to kill it because the organizations do not want to have to tell you what they do with your money.
Given a choice, what organization would not prefer to forgo public scrutiny of its finances? But 30,000 charities in Massachusetts do not have that option. Neither should churches, synagogues, or mosques. Public accountability is a reasonable price for religious organizations to pay for being subsidized by the taxpayers through their tax-exempt status. In lieu of taxes, a bill from a certified public accountant is short money.
By agreeing to amend the legislation to exempt smaller congregations from the most detailed reporting requirements, sponsors have defused apocryphal warnings from opponents that some churches would be forced to close their food pantries to pay an accountant. An annual review by a CPA would apply only to churches with revenue of $500,000 or more. A full financial audit would be required only of religious organizations with at least $1 million in annual revenue. Congregations taking in that much money ought to be auditing their books regularly already. Why not share that information with their donors?
When the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, and compatriots are not conjuring up visions of bankrupt village churches, they are distorting the meaning of the separation of church and state.
In a letter to Roman Catholics last week, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley insisted that the bill to be voted on today in the Massachusetts House ''will greatly burden all churches" and that ''a requirement that churches and religious organizations register their charitable activity with the government is inconsistent with our nation's and our Commonwealth's constitutional guarantees of religious freedom." The Massachusetts Council of Churches made the same argument yesterday in a letter to Senator Marian Walsh, chief sponsor of the legislation.
How is telling you where your money went an infringement on anyone's religious freedom?
O'Malley's assertion that ''the bill would entangle government in the internal workings of every religion" is nonsense. The legislation is narrowly drawn to address public financial disclosure. No more. No less.
Confronting the distortions in O'Malley's widely distributed letter, Walsh, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, and Representative Kathleen Teahan responded with a letter asking the archbishop to ''cease and desist with the spread of misinformation."
''A decision on this proposal should be based on facts, not false statements that misrepresent this proposal and place fear in the hearts of the public," they wrote.
O'Malley has managed to convince the state's other religious denominations that they are being drawn into a family squabble among Catholics, many of whom have questions about the source of the millions spent to settle so many sexual abuse cases and the disposition of proceeds from recent sales of church-owned real estate.
This bill is not about payback. It is about accountability. The clergy sexual abuse scandal and the contentious process of closing Catholic parishes highlights the perils of institutional secrecy. But every religious organization owes financial transparency to every donor who drops a dollar in the collection basket or writes a check for the annual appeal. It is just not that big a burden.
Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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