Respect for Marriage Act doesn’t revoke tax-exempt status from churches
CLAIM: The Respect for Marriage Act would allow the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that only support marriage between a man and a woman. Small business owners and religiously-affiliated groups could be sued or shuttered under this law for the same beliefs.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Nothing in the legislation — which is aimed at protecting same-sex and interracial marriages — would allow churches to be denied tax-exempt status or other organizations to be sued for their stance on marriage, constitutional law experts tell The Associated Press. In fact, recent amendments to the bill specifically clarify that it cannot impact tax status or the rights of private individuals or businesses already enshrined in the law.
THE FACTS: The legislation passed a key vote in the Senate on Wednesday, with 12 Senate Republicans joining all Democrats to forward the bill for a final vote. But while the bill has support from some faith groups like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, others have argued it’s a threat to religious freedom.
Recent posts on social media are spreading false claims about the supposed impact the bill would have on churches and religious organizations.
“I got confused over the same sex marriage bill. I thought it was already legal,” reads one post on Twitter with over 23,000 likes. “My cousin is gay and he got married years ago, so I looked into the bill. Ahhh, it will allow the IRS, to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that hold fast to traditional marriage.”
The Tweet continues in a thread: “Religiously affiliated adoption centers and foster care providers would be forced to close down for the same beliefs. And small business owners who choose to only support traditional marriage would be able to be sued under this law.”
Screenshots of this post were reshared on other platforms, including Instagram and Facebook.
However, constitutional law experts say these claims are false.
The social media post is correct that same-sex marriage is already legal, due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. So if the Respect for Marriage Act doesn’t pass Congress, that would not change, said Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
However, the bill would have an impact if same-sex marriage comes under threat. The legislation would repeal the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act and require states to recognize all marriages that were legal where they were performed. The legislation would also protect interracial marriages by requiring states to recognize legal marriages regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.”
But it would not affect private businesses or entities including churches, it would only apply to the government and government officials, according to Volokh and Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University.
Carpenter pointed to amendments to the bill added in the Senate to make this clear, including one that specifies nothing in the act can be interpreted to affect, alter or deny tax-exempt status from “an otherwise eligible entity or person.”
“There was never even any reason to believe that this would result in loss of tax status, charitable status, or tax exemption for religious groups,” Carpenter said. “But now with the Senate amendments, it is a belt and suspenders approach that there’s like a double lock on the door.”
Another section in the recent amendment specifies that nonprofit religious organizations are not required to provide “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”
The bill also specifies that it only applies to “those acting under color of State law,” a phrase meaning that only actual government officials are subject to its non-discrimination requirement, according to Carpenter. That means that even an adoption agency that receives government funding, but is not acting on behalf of the state, would not be subject to the bill.
“I am not aware of any cases in which a private adoption agency merely entering a contract to provide adoption services, is acting under color of state law,” said Carpenter. “At any rate, religious nonprofit adoption agencies are specifically excluded from duties or liabilities under the RMA.”
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the lead Senate Republican sponsor of the bill, was one of the senators who introduced the amendments to outline protections for religious liberties. Collins confirmed in a statement that the additions clarify that the bill could not be used to deny or alter the tax-exempt status of any organization.
“The amendment clarifies that the bill could not be used to deny or alter the tax-exempt status—or any other status, tax treatment, grant, contract, agreement, guarantee, educational funding, loan, scholarship, license, certification, accreditation, benefit, right, claim, or defense not arising from a marriage—for any otherwise eligible person or entity,” reads the statement.
Collins also said that, under the act, non-profit religious organizations like churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and religious educational institutions “cannot be compelled to participate in or support the solemnization or celebration of marriages that are contrary to their religious beliefs.”
“The Respect for Marriage Act would help promote equality, prevent discrimination, and protect the rights of Americans in same-sex and interracial marriages. It would accomplish these goals while maintaining important religious liberty and conscience protections,” Collins said in the statement.
Senate Democrats are attempting to move this bill quickly while the party still has control of the House, according to AP reporting. The original legislation passed the House in a July vote with the support of 47 Republicans. If the final vote is approved by the Senate, it would return to the House for clearance on the amended version before President Joe Biden could sign it into law.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.