On Law
March 3, 1998 / 5 Adar, 5758

Rendering Back to Caesar

By Kevin Hasson

A BILL is pending in Congress to protect people from having to render back to Caesar what they have already rendered to G-d. The bill, called the religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act, will almost certainly become law. DollarsBut it's a tragedy that the bill is necessary at all.

Filing for bankruptcy has many legal implications. An especially important one is that the bankruptcy trustee, who acts on behalf of all the bankrupt person's creditors, is permitted to sue to recover any moneys that person gave away or paid to his creditors in the relatively recent past. The theory is that, since there is not enough money to go around, it is unfair for some creditors to get a disproportionately large share just because the debtor preferred to pay them over others. Moreover, generous "gifts" from someone about to go bankrupt look suspiciously like attempts to squirrel away assets to be recovered later. So all such payments can be recovered by the bankruptcy trustee, and put back into the pot of assets available to be divided up among the creditors. This sounds sensible enough, doesn't it? And it's been the law for quite some time now. So what's the problem?

The problem is that in the last few years some particularly hard-hearted bankruptcy trustees have begun suing churches and synagogues to recover the donations people made before going bankrupt. Individual congregations often don't have the resources necessary to fight these suits. It might not be cost-effective to fight them one at a time in any event. Still, a bankruptcy trustee's sudden demand for repayment of thousands of dollars, received in the past and already spent, can be quite burdensome. That is especially true for inner-city congregations, which often operate on a shoestring and also have a higher-than-normal percentage of members filing for bankruptcy. Such lawsuits present a real, practical problem.

They represent an even larger social problem. Until recently, bankruptcy trustees didn't dare sue churches or synagogues. It wasn't that the law forbade it. It was that common decency made it unthinkable. Everybody knew that synagogues and churches were, well, sacred. And even if a particular bankruptcy trustee didn't quite believe that, he still had to live in a community full of people who did.

No longer. As faith is more and more seen as nothing more than one among many possible hobbies, as a private pursuit roughly akin to golf or sailing, there seems to be less and less reason to treat it specially. If a trustee can recover voluntary donations made to a county club's landscape fund, why not sue to recover voluntary tithes to a church?

The answer, of course, is that golf, as religiously as some people play it, is still only a sport. Faith answers the deepest longing of the human heart. It is a quintessentially human act. And that is a point that even the most devout atheist should be able to grant.

Fortunately, our Senators and Congressmen at least pretend to get the point. Their new legislation should fend off overreaching trustees. And President Clinton, who misses no opportunity to be photographed standing in a church door and holding a Bible, will no doubt sign the new act into law. So the practical problem will be solved. But what of the larger social problem that lurks behind it? That won't be solved until religious expression is once again welcome in public life as the great and unique good it is. And for that to happen people of all faiths must constantly remind Caesar that he is, after all, only Caesar. He may not demand what belongs to G-d.


2/24/98: Feigning Cultural Amnesia
2/16/98: Resting unpeacefully in Boca Raton

Kevin Hasson is President of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a bi-partisan and ecumenical public interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions.

©1998, Kevin Hasson