The religious right ought to be up in arms over the latest government assault on the free exercise of religion.
Last week in Panama City Beach, Florida, government officials stripped away the property tax exemption of a popular church, simply because it took an innovative approach—though one firmly rooted in history—to experience the divine.
The church is called “The Life Center: A Spiritual Community” and has been conducting a religious service called “Amnesia: The Tabernacle.” Instead of disrupting worshippers’ prayers with repeated demands for cash, as other churches do, The Life Center simply charged a twenty-dollar “donation” at the door. Once inside, believers were given the opportunity to participate in services such as “Anything But Clothes,” naked body painting parties, and “a pajama and lingerie party hosted by the sexiest ladies on the beach.” The church’s interior décor was designed to promote the same worship theme, with t-shirts displaying oral sex and wall posters proclaiming: “I hate being sober.”
The property is owned by Rev. Markus Q. Bishop, former pastor of the Faith Christian Family Church, a megachurch with a ten thousand square-foot, five-bedroom, six-bathroom mansion to house him. Property tax assessors conducted a vendetta for years against the tax exemption for this “parsonage,” but Rev. Bishop won every challenge.
In a 2013 television interview, Rev. Bishop described his spiritual journey:
I guess right off the bat, it would be difficult, in a sound bite, to explain my spiritual path… I had certainly complied with and conformed with a lot of things in my beliefs that just didn’t resonate with me. And so I decided after a lot of difficult things that occurred in my life—some people would call them a crash and burn, I look at them as an awakening because they made me really go and look within… It’s not about what label you wear. It’s not about what title you carry. It’s about what’s really going on inside you. I am a follower of Jesus. I am a practicer of Buddhism. I am a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I am a student of a course in miracles. And more than anything, I am passionate about a path of truth and reality that manifests itself in love and peace.”
Anything non-religious about that?
Nevertheless, the city tax assessor claims to know what religion is and isn’t, and he has no use for love and peace. “A bottle club, charging twenty dollars at the door and selling obscene T-shirts is not being used as a church,” he said. “A God-fearing, God-honoring church in January does not sponsor this type of debauchery in March.” The police chief agreed: “I’ve been in a lot of nightclubs and I’ve been in a lot of churches. That isn’t a church.” Panama City Beach indeed knows a lot about religion: its voting center at the last election was a (more traditional) church with a sign out front that said: “Vote biblically.”
So what makes The Life Center a non-church and “Amnesia: The Tabernacle” a nonreligious service? Loud music? Singing? Dancing in the aisles? Sex? If those activities make something a non-church, there are an awful lot of tax-exempt non-churches out there. Rev. Bishop has been winning fights against the tax assessor for years. If he fights this persecution, as I hope he will, it will be fascinating to hear him weave his amalgam of the teachings of Jesus, Buddhism, and the Maharishi Yogi into a “personal journey” culminating with the sexiest ladies on the beach.
Surely he will cite the Hobby Lobby case, in which Justice Alito defines religion as whatever a believer says it is: “[I]t is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial. Instead, our ‘narrow function… in this context is to determine’ whether the line drawn reflects ‘an honest conviction.’” Who are we to question the honesty of Rev. Bishop’s conviction that he hates being sober?
The weight of history is on Rev. Bishop’s side. Sir James Frazer, in his classic The Golden Bough, writes at some length of the sexual practices of pre-Christian churches. For example,
At Heliopolis or Baalbec in Syria, famous for the imposing grandeur of its ruined temples, the custom of the country required that every maiden should prostitute herself to a stranger at the temple of Astarte, and matrons as well as maids testified their devotion to the goddess in the same manner… In Phoenician temples women prostituted themselves for hire in the service of religion, believing that by this conduct they propitiated the goddess and won her favor.
Frazer goes on to quote the apocryphal Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: “It was a law of the Amorites, that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate.”
If such rituals were religious then, why aren’t they religious now? If the use of otherwise illegal hallucinogenic drugs and the ritual sacrifice of innocent animals are protected as religion, then what’s so shocking about naked body painting? Do we really want police chiefs and tax assessors deciding what’s religious and what isn’t?
So Rev. Bishop should win this case, even though it’s doubtful that hypocrites like the Becket Fund will step forward to defend him. For those of us who think that the kinds of activities “Amnesia: The Tabernacle” is promoting don’t merit special tax privileges, the solution is simple: just abolish the religious property tax exemption altogether, and let churches pay their fair share for police and fire protection like the rest of us.