Bob Jones University is an extremely fundamentalist Christian institution that not only denounces homosexuality but also even prohibited inter-racial dating and marriage. When that policy was challenged by the IRS that denied its tax-exempt status because of its discriminatory policies, the university took its case against the IRS all the way to the US Supreme Court, where they lost.
This report on the dating case explains what was at issue.
Bob Jones University was dedicated to “fundamentalist Christian beliefs” which included prohibitions against interracial dating and marriage. Such behavior would lead to expulsion. In 1970, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) changed its formal policy to adopt a district court decision that prohibited the IRS from giving tax-exempt status to private schools engaging in racial discrimination. The IRS believed that the University’s policies amounted to racism and revoked its tax-exempt status. The University claimed that the IRS had abridged its religious liberty. This case was decided together with Goldsboro Christian Schools Inc. v. United States, in which Goldsboro maintained a racially discriminatory admissions policy based upon its interpretation of the Bible, accepting for the most part only Caucasian students. The IRS determined that Goldsboro was not an exempt organization and hence was required to pay federal social security and unemployment taxes. After paying a portion of such taxes for certain years, Goldsboro filed a refund suit claiming that the denial of its tax-exempt status violated the U.S. Constitution.
The Court found that the IRS was correct in its decision to revoke the tax- exempt status of Bob Jones University and the Goldsboro Christian School. These institutions did not meet the requirement by providing “beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life” to be supported by taxpayers with a special tax status. The schools could not meet this requirement due to their discriminatory policies. The Court declared that racial discrimination in education violated a “fundamental national public policy.” The government may justify a limitation on religious liberties by showing it is necessary to accomplish an “overriding governmental interest.” Prohibiting racial discrimination was such a governmental interest. Hence, the Court found that “not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional.”
This was an 8-1 verdict authored by chief justice Warren Burger back in 1983, with future chief justice William Rehnquist being the sole dissenter.
But this was before the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed in 1993, the law that was successfully used by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, both private for-profit businesses, to avoid complying with government mandates on providing health care. Religious people and institutions have seen RFRA as their way to defend their discriminatory practices against government requirements and it is not clear how the Bob Jones case would be decided now in the light of RFRA. The Supreme Court is also far more conservative now. We have clearly gone backwards in this area.
But it is not all regression. The former president of Bob Jones University, Bob Jones III, has apologized for statements that he made in 1980 that called for the stoning of gays.
In a statement issued by the university on Saturday (March 21), Jones called his earlier comments “inflammatory” and “reckless.”
“Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger — were my name not attached,” he wrote. “I cannot erase them, but wish I could, because they do not represent the belief of my heart or the content of my preaching. Neither before, nor since, that event in 1980 have I ever advocated the stoning of sinners.”
To be clear, his statement only apologizes for calling for stoning. He does not say that he accepts homosexuality as not being sinful, at least not yet. What was even more interesting was that this apology was prompted by a petition organized by an organization of LGBT alumni of the college. The fact that such a group even exists is a sign of how much things have changed.
It is certainly noteworthy, amazing even, that as recently as 1980 we actually had the president of a university calling for the stoning of gay people and he was not immediately ostracized and condemned for his barbarism by society at large but that he now feels compelled to completely distance himself from that sentiment.
So some things have definitely changed for the better.