01/03/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Holding God Accountable

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is at it again. This time, the organization, which sees fit to sue over the public expression of faith as often as possible, is suing the Internal Revenue Service over its policies regarding the differing filing requirements imposed on religious and non-religious organizations.

The organization, which typically confuses freedom from religion with hostility to religious expression, may, in this case, actually have a point. I guess what they say is true: Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and this may be one of FFRF's times.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Foundation, declared that the main concern for them is that as things stand now, a whole class of religious organizations "play(s) by a different set of rules." She is right that churches, synagogues, etc., play by a different set of rules. That, in and of itself, is not problematic.

The fact is, whether the FFRF likes it or not, we have decided as a nation that religious organizations, by virtue of the public benefit they provide, deserve special treatment. Were that the only issue here, I would find myself in the more usual position of disagreeing with the foundation's actions. But that is not the only issue, and it is precisely because I place a high value on the role of faith in our larger public culture that I find myself sympathetic to their cause in this case.

While filling out and filing IRS form 990s can be both time consuming and costly to any organization -- I know because my own organization files them annually -- doing so is both important and potentially valuable.

Greater transparency, as would be created by implementing at least some of the changes sought in the FFRF suit, would only build trust and confidence in the work of any group or organization currently exempted. What donor or beneficiary would not feel better about being associated with an organization that kept fewer secrets? Not to mention the less than ideal track record of religious organizations which seek the protection of secrecy regarding their own inner workings.

Perhaps the single most dangerous part of any religious culture is its capacity for self-righteousness and self-protection -- the presumption that either they are, by definition, in the right simply because they are who they are, or that when they do acknowledge a problem, the insistence that they can solve it entirely on their own. Each year we witness countless stories that prove how dangerously misguided those presumptions are.

While changing the IRS filing rules for religious organizations would not entirely solve those problems, it would help. Demand for greater transparency and clarity in financial matters would, over time, help turn the cultures of those organizations toward greater transparency and openness in all matters.

Ms. Gaylor is also correct when she says that "having tax-exempt status is a great privilege." Ironically, there is virtually no faith-based system of which I know that does not teach that with increased privilege or blessing, come increased obligation or responsibility. So the religious thing to do here, it seems to me, would be for those institutions currently exempted, to embrace at least some piece of the FFRF's critique, if not all of their sought after changes.

I am not suggesting that the IRS necessarily wipe out all current distinctions between various kinds of not-for-profit organizations, but it does seem reasonable to suggest that we would all benefit from a greater degree of transparency from religious organizations. The most deeply religious, to the most ardently atheist, this is something about which we should all be able to agree.