Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara today charges that political insiderism is responsible for the delay of a bill that would require churches, synagogues and mosques to do the same kind of public financial reporting as non-religious, nonprofit organizations. McNamara writes:
Churches became exempt only in 1954 from the reporting requirements that govern tax-exempt, charitable organizations in the state. The sex abuse scandal illuminated the folly of such secrecy. Critics are being disingenuous when they argue that disclosure would be an infringement on religious freedom. This is not about theology; it is about money.
This follows on the heels of a Globe story by Frank Phillips last week reporting that Protestant groups had succeeded in postponing action on the bill, drafted in order to force more accountability on the part of the Catholic Church.
So is McNamara right? I don’t know. Her argument makes sense. But here’s another perspective: A friend who is an Episcopal priest told me last week that the bill, if it passes, will cost her small, struggling North Shore church $5,000 a year in paperwork and accounting expenses — possibly forcing it to close.
Moreover, she said, the bill wouldn’t even accomplish the goal of requiring the Boston Archdiocese — the real target in all of this — to disclose the finances of each individual Catholic church. The archdiocese simply doesn’t budget that way, keeping everything in a central account. Legislators would like to know more because of the church closings, some of which appear to have been motivated by internal church politics and/or land-value considerations.
Opponents of the bill argue that it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. I could argue just as logically that exempting churches from the same reporting requirements with which other non-profits must comply amounts to unconstitutional state sponsorship of religion.
Nevertheless, the possibility that a bill aimed at the Catholic Church would almost certainly miss its target and instead harm innocent bystanders suggests that we need to know more about it before the state Legislature votes.
As McNamara notes, this bill has been floating around for quite a while. It’s time for the Globe to stop covering this solely as a Beacon Hill story, and instead to explore what it would mean for churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations.