The Justice Department has intervened in the first federal civil test case for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and sided with creditors against a church that has been ordered to turn over $13,500 in tithe contributions.
Bruce and Nancy Young filed for bankruptcy in February 1992 when their family business failed after he suffered a heart attack. Subsequently, Federal Judge Robert Kressel ruled that their weekly tithes during the previous 12 months to Crystal Evangelical Free Church in New Hope, Minnesota, constituted a "fraudulent transfer" of funds.
The church appealed, but U.S. District Court Judge Harry MacLaughlin last year ruled that the Youngs had received "nothing of value" for their donations and the money must be turned over to bankruptcy trustees. The Justice Department agreed in April, filing a brief that compared the church to "drug lords, cultists, and criminals of all manner."
"The government's claim is an extraordinary interference in church affairs which threatens the financial integrity of churches and charities nation wide," says Steven McFarland, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom in Annandale, Virginia.
The church—which so far has spent $160,000 on the case—has appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and arguments will be heard in September. The church, attended by 2,000 people, plans to keep fighting.
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