House of Candor
January 25, 2006
A BILL THAT would require religious organizations to disclose basic financial records is a right-minded effort to introduce accountability to an estimated 6,000 public charities that now elude such oversight. Current attempts by religious groups to cast the bill as an entanglement of church and state are misguided at best, and deceptive at worst.
The bill, which is scheduled for debate today in the House, would require churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious entities to report gross revenues, net assets, fundraising expenses, and other routine information as a condition of their tax-exempt status, identical to the state's roughly 30,000 secular nonprofit organizations. The bill, which has passed the Senate, would also require all charities, both secular and religious, to list real estate holdings as part of their annual financial reports.
Opponents of this sensible bill, led by the Archdiocese of Boston, argue that it blurs the bright line between church and state. A Jan. 19 open letter from Archbishop Sean O'Malley claims that the legislation could be used "as a means of exercising control over the affairs of the Archdiocese and its parishes." O'Malley and opponents from other denominations have found a receptive ear in Governor Romney, who opposes adding a "whole new regulatory burden" on religious charities, according to an administration spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom.
No religious leader in Massachusetts, to our knowledge, preaches the absence of financial transparency as a tenet of faith. The bill's authors and supporters, led by state Senator Marian Walsh of West Roxbury, seek only to provide church members and donors to religious organizations with sufficient data to determine that funds are not being wasted or diverted. Such neutral safeguards, which were in place here until the 1950s, pose no threat whatever to religious liberty.
Some poor congregations make the case that the expenses associated with certain reporting requirements could detract from their charitable missions, such as operating soup kitchens. While all charities would be required to fill out a simple financial statement, an amendment to the bill would exempt church groups with minimal revenues from accountant audits or review letters.
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