You are currently viewing When Christian Groups Subvert Religious Liberty of Christians

When Christian Groups Subvert Religious Liberty of Christians

The Story: The Italian Supreme Court’s harassment of an evangelical church serves as a stark reminder that the ongoing threats to religious liberty often come from those who identify as Christians.

The Background: For nearly a decade, Breccia di Roma, an evangelical congregation in Rome, has been embroiled in a legal battle with Italian tax authorities over recognizing their meeting place as a legitimate place of worship. The dispute revolves around the authorities’ refusal to grant tax-exempt status to the church, arguing its premises lack the “intrinsic characteristics” of a religious building, such as the altars, statues, and ornate decor typically found in Catholic churches.

In 2016, the church purchased an old storefront in Rome’s historic district to convert into their meeting place. After obtaining the necessary approvals and paying the required fees, the church expected the building’s redesignation as a tax-exempt religious institution to be finalized. However, the national tax agency intervened, claiming the simple, unadorned space doesn’t resemble their conception of a church building.

Despite the church winning two court cases in 2016 and 2023, the tax authority remained adamant and appealed the decisions, escalating the matter to Italy’s highest court. In a ruling in June 2024, the Italian Supreme Court sided with the tax authorities, denying the church tax-exempt status. The court upheld the argument that the church’s premises lack the markers of a religious building, effectively denying its recognition as a legitimate place of worship for tax purposes.

Why It Matters: This ruling has raised significant concerns about religious freedom and equal treatment of minority faiths in Italy. The case also highlights the challenges faced by evangelical and other Protestant communities in Italy, where the Catholic Church’s influence remains deeply ingrained in the cultural and bureaucratic fabric. It underscores the need for greater recognition and accommodation of diverse religious practices, ensuring all faiths are treated equitably under the law.

But it also provides a lesson for Christians in the United States about the importance of vigilance in safeguarding religious liberty. The challenges faced by Breccia di Roma serve as a stark reminder that even in countries with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the practical application of those rights can be hindered by cultural biases, bureaucratic obstacles, and unequal treatment of minority faiths. And that such threats can come from other Christians.

Consider, for example, an issue generally of concern only for pastors—tax benefits related to a housing allowance.

For more than a thousand years, housing has been a form of noncash payment or compensation for church ministers. This type of housing is often referred to as a parsonage (also known as a rectory, manse, or vicarage). The history of parsonages can be traced back to the early Christian church, but they became more prevalent in the Middle Ages.

In medieval Europe, parsonages were often built near the church and were considered part of its property. The parson or priest would live in the parsonage and be responsible for the parish’s spiritual well-being. In the United States, parsonages have been a part of church life since the colonial era. Many early American churches provided housing for their ministers, often in the form of a simple farmhouse or cottage.

In the early 20th century, taxation changed in America as income began to be taxed. In 1921, Congress provided a parsonage exemption that applied only to ministers who lived on property owned by their churches. This exemption tends to favor certain types of church structures over others. Churches where ecclesiastical properties are owned centrally, such as in the Catholic Church, may find it easier to provide parsonages compared to independent local churches with more limited financial resources.

This rule disadvantaged ministers—usually of low-church denominations—whose churches provided a housing allowance rather than a church-owned parsonage. So in 1954, Congress amended the tax code to allow ministers to exempt a portion of their income to the extent used for housing.

In 2013, a federal judge challenged this exemption, ruling that the clergy tax-free housing allowances were unconstitutional. That case was overturned the following year in the appeals court. Yet that same judge ruled again in 2017 that an income tax exemption for clergy housing is unconstitutional. That decision was also overturned on appeal.

Because the cases were overturned, they’re easy to dismiss as irrelevant. But they reveal how institutional bias and complacency could lead to harm for certain Christian groups in the future.

For instance, the judge’s decision harmed only specific groups of Christians, such as small Baptist congregations and underfunded nondenominational church plants. By targeting the housing allowance and not church-owned parsonages, the judge unintentionally attempted to incorporate into the tax code a bias toward wealthy churches and mainline denominations. Those churches often bought their property decades earlier and are thus more likely to own parsonages. This is because established denominations, with accumulated resources, are often better positioned to navigate complex tax laws and maintain traditional church structures, such as parsonages.

In an attempt to prevent an imaginary violation of the Establishment Clause, the judge allowed institutional bias to create a real infringement of the Constitution.

This judge’s assault on liberty also highlights our complacency. The judge’s most recent ruling came a mere seven years ago. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution proved, once again, to be a sufficient bulwark against such threats to religious liberty. But the casual way we shrug about the judge’s rulings shows how American Christians have become overly reliant on legal precedent alone to preserve our first freedom. This has led us to dismiss, downplay, or outright ignore dangerous threats and attacks, both from without and from within.

Over the past decade, for example, there has been a rise in ideological movements composed of Christians who actively oppose religious liberty—even for Christians. Catholic Integralists and (mostly Protestant) Christian Nationalists are the most prominent examples of this type of right-wing wokeism.

For example, in his book The Case for Christian Nationalism, Stephen Wolfe argues for a Christian prince to “punish (with civil power) false teachers, heretics, blasphemers, and idolaters for their external expressions of such things in order to prevent (1) any injury to the souls of the people of God, (2) the subversion of Christian government, Christian culture, or spiritual discipline, or (3) civil disruption or unrest.” He then adds, “Modern religious liberty advocates deny this and I affirm it.”

We modern religious liberty advocates deny this because we’ve seen throughout history—with the Breccia di Roma case being just the latest example—how “Christian magistrates” persecute us low-church types for an “external expression” of faith that differs from what’s authorized by the national church.

The power to persecute is always more appealing when you think you’ll wield the power. In theory, Wolfe should be cheering the Italian Supreme Court decision since they’re imposing the “theocratic Caesarism” he champions. But Wolfe presumably prefers a “Christian prince” that looks more like himself than like Pope Francis. The problem with religious dictators, though, is that you often don’t get a choice in what religious tradition they’ll choose to make the only acceptable standard.

Wolfe-style theocracy and Italian-style subversion of religious freedom aren’t imminent in the United States. The anti-liberty woke sound loud on X, but their views aren’t yet influential. For instance, Southern Baptists recently voted on a resolution opposing “any effort to establish a state religion of any nation, including the United States of America.”

Yet efforts to undermine religious liberty need to be opposed forcefully, consistently, and constantly. The historian J. H. Burns once noted that “the Church thinks in centuries while politicians are content to get through the coming week.” The same long-term perspective is needed for defenders of religious liberty. We cannot become complacent or take our freedoms for granted, thinking legal precedents alone will preserve them indefinitely. Nor can we ignore internal threats from misguided Christians who fail to grasp the biblical and historical necessity of safeguarding liberty for all.

Just as Breccia di Roma faces an ongoing battle in Italy, the fight for religious freedom requires constant vigilance and proactive engagement here in America. We must continue making the case for why our First Amendment rights are essential not only for Christians but for people of all faiths and of no faith. As Christ’s followers, we have an opportunity and responsibility to lead the way—not by mandating belief in Christ as a requirement for all citizens but by exemplifying the love, grace, and truth of the gospel in all we say and do.

​  

Leave a Reply