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Rendering unto Caesar

A Massachusetts senator has introduced a bill to close a loophole in the way the commonwealth manages its relations with non-profit entities. Right now, in order to maintain their tax-free status, they have to file annual reports with the Secretary of State's office that accounts for what real estate they own, how much money they take in, from what sources, and what they did with it (kind of like a tax return, but more of a no-tax return).

For decades, though, one class of non-profit organization has been exempt from the reporting requirements. One senator, Marian Walsh of West Roxbury, has looked high and low for the original rationale for that exemption, and can't find it, so she's filed a bill to close it off. And that has a lot of people in high dudgeon.

Because, you see, the groups that have so far been exempt from the reporting requirement have been churches.

Senator Walsh freely admits that her move was prompted by the recent priestly sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church. As it began to break, parishioners started noticing some odd things about how the Church was reacting. The Boston Archdiocese was paying out multi-million-dollar settlements, while at the same time insisting that the money did not come from parishioners' offerings and closing parishes and selling off real estate holdings.

Some of those parishioners turned to the Church, asking just where the money was coming from and where it was going. And when the Church refused, some of them went to their elected representatives.

It's a tough question. With the "separation of Church and State" principle, the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment, the Catholic Church's odd dichotomy of also being a representative of a sovereign state, and a host of other issues, does a state have have the authority to demand a church open its books? And if it does, should it?

I've given it a bit of thought, and I'd have to say yes to both. The government (meaning, really, all of us citizens) subsidize churches to a degree by exempting them from income, sales, and property taxes that any other organization would be liable to pay. And that privilege should come with a price: they must demonstrate that they are not abusing and exploiting that benefit.

I'd be more than willing to listen to arguments why churches should be granted this exception, and on an interview today I heard Senator Walsh say much the same thing. But as of right now, I think that the arguments in favor of treating the churches like any other non-profit organization are pretty compelling.


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Comments (33)

I completely agree. Churche... (Below threshold)
JSchuler:

I completely agree. Churches, or any religious institution, should not be given a tax exemption just because they happen to be religious. That kinda goes against the Establishment Clause (as does any law that excludes a religious establishment, simply because it is religious). I just wish the people we put in office and the courts would read the Constitution once in a while, or learn the English language, preferably both.

As one who has sued a relig... (Below threshold)
Robert:

As one who has sued a religious institutionsfor violation of my civil rights, I would have to agree completely. ANY not for profit organization has a duty to all citizens to be reviewed by the citizens (or in this case the representatives of the citizens) to make certain no abuses are taking place. If there are abuses, then they should be punished and those benefits should be revoked.

I would accept a compromise... (Below threshold)

I would accept a compromise, that is not in reality a compromise. Let the churches pay taxes on all property but churches and schools. If a property's use is changed from church or school, boom! On to the tax rolls.

Far too much property, I believe, is held by churches and exempt when it has little or no relationship to the religious purpose of the church.

Tax them all. Church "non-p... (Below threshold)
Mrs. Davis:

Tax them all. Church "non-profits" and "non-church" "Non-profits". Why should Pat Robertson get a free ride? The tax exempt properties of churches and universities are choking the propety tax cofers of our cities. They should apy their way like everyone else.

A church is not a business ... (Below threshold)

A church is not a business and the government has little authority to demand private information. What to say when we're told we're subsidizing someone by not taking something from them? What logic!

If the government has good evidence that a religious orginazation broke the law, take it to a judge and get a court order.

Chuck makes a brilliant poi... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Chuck makes a brilliant point. I call it brilliant because it's one I intended to make, but forgot about it in the typing. Only property being used directly in the furtherance of the church's religious work should be tax-exempt -- churches, schools, and the like. Otherwise, it oughta go on the tax rolls.

J.

I've given it a bit of t... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

I've given it a bit of thought, and I'd have to say yes to both. The government (meaning, really, all of us citizens) subsidize churches to a degree by exempting them from income, sales, and property taxes that any other organization would be liable to pay

Just a note but all non profit organizations are exempt from taxes, not just churches. I don't have a real issue if the government wants to see some kind of list of owned properties and assets and how they are used, but churches and church programs in general provide a lot of good charity work, I think the exemption isn't unfair. AFter all the government subsidized all sorts of businesses, and many of those businesses don't give anything back to the communities they live in while churches do.

Legislation like this makes... (Below threshold)

Legislation like this makes me very nervous. Why can't the parishoners petition a court instead of a lawmaker? This is the camel sticking his nose under the tent.

Sorry, I understand the inc... (Below threshold)

Sorry, I understand the inclination all express in favor of coming down on the church here, but what is to be done with this information once it is filed? Is it to be merely looked at, or is that the first step prior to some next set of regulation? Is the property used for worship parishioners to be tax free, but the property used for the housing of retired nuns taxable? Who decides what is a religious purpose and what isn't? A bureaucrat? Legislators? Does not this constitute inhibiting the free exercise of religion?

Jay:I have to say ... (Below threshold)
jmaster:

Jay:

I have to say that I am against this concept in its entirety. Churches are the first, and last, bastion of government non-meddling. Nobody is forcing the parishioners to attend a particular church. If they have a problem, let them vote with their feet and/or the offering plate. It’s a time proven formula.

I also disagree, even more strongly, with your belief that the government is “subsidizing” churches by NOT taxing them. You’re sounding like a liberal whiner who claims that the Republicans are giving out “corporate welfare” by cutting corporate income taxes (which we know we consumers end up paying anyway). Its like a tax cut: taking less from me than before is not the same as giving me a hand out. It was my money first!

Churches, in our country at least, are completely voluntary operations. Thankfully, and gratefully, they are still free of the hand of government interaction. Bringing the tax man into the mix is a sure way to F-that all up to Hell, so to speak (un-religiously).

This policy no doubt arose ... (Below threshold)

This policy no doubt arose when the founding fathers adopted a complete "no-touch" position towards the church. In their eyes, opening churches up to any sort of taxation would be granting the government the power to tax churches out of existence.

I have seen abuses of this tax-exempt status from time to time, but as a whole, I don't think that the benefits of across-the-board taxation of churches (income tax, land tax, sales tax, etc.) is the answer. Churches are, like other non-profit organizations, eligible for audits if abuse is reasonably suspected.

I hate to let you guys in o... (Below threshold)
bullwinkle:

I hate to let you guys in on a little secret but churches already have to account for the money they take in and prove that it was used for tax exempt purposes. Just like Gloria Wises' Boys and Girls Club they have to account to account for what was paid out in payroll to employees so the income taxes are collected from them and they have to account for donations from members that the members deduct from their taxes. If they didn't anyone could write off any amount they wanted and there would be no way of proving otherwise. As far as state taxes in Taxachussetts go, they may not have had to file any reports before but I've been involved with several charities in Texas and you have to keep records and account for every cent. If you didn't there would be more fraud like Air America nearly got by with.

There seem to be two somewh... (Below threshold)

There seem to be two somewhat separate issues floating around here: 1) should churches be taxed and 2) should churches be required to reveal where their money comes from and/or goes?

1) Hell no! I hate the phrase "separation of church and state" because it has been misused almost to the point of becoming meaningless, but this is one area where the original meaning holds true. The government is not supposed to stick its fingers into the church's cookie jar.

Once the government decides it can start taking money from the church, the government can control the church. If the government doesn't like what the church is preaching, then it can just tax them out of existance. Many churches struggle as it is to keep afloat, especially churches that have no central council, like Baptists.

Of course, once you allow the government to tax churches, then churches must be allowed to participate in government as much as they want. Pastors should be allowed to preach politics from the pulpit. Denominations can support a political candidate. If you don't allow this, that old arguement of "taxation without representation" comes back to bite you in the ass.

All in all it becomes very messy, Constitution-shredding business to tax religious organizations (by the way, substitute the word "synagoge", "mosque", "temple", etc. in for "church").

2) Yes, as long as the government has no say in where said money comes from/goes as long as no already-existing laws are violated, i.e. the money doesn't fund drug lords or people who blow up abortion clinics. Church money should be spent on church business, payroll for the pastor(s) and office assistant(s), missions and ministries, and other church-related activites.

The best thing to do is to simply make sure that church money is being spent in a non-profit manner and does not fund illegal activities. The church certainly needs no permission from the government to do its own business, but somebody has to make sure that a "church" is not simply used as a tax shelter for its "members".

I think there is frequently... (Below threshold)
Dave:

I think there is frequently a little bit more to the issue than church buildings, offerings and so on. Many churches own commercial property, such as rental houses - some own a lot. Many churches are invested in the stock market. The assumption is that the profits from these investments goes to charitable purposes, or to defray operating costs. I certainly hope so. But I would hope that accountability is enforced for them, as well as other non-profit organizations. Religious people can fall to temptation, too. Remember a guy by the name of Jim Bakker?

I agree that Churches shoul... (Below threshold)
BenJCarter:

I agree that Churches should be treated exactly like any other non-profit. What reason could there be to do any different? Especially when seperation of church and state is the law of the land.

To clarify the last sentenc... (Below threshold)
BenJCarter:

To clarify the last sentence from my last post: If seperation of church and state is the law of the land, how can we legally treat the Boys and Girls Club differently than the Catholic Church? ie: Not requiring the latter to disclose their financial holdings as completely as the former for no reason other than religion.

Thanks for the soapbox gents!

SilverBubble is exactly cor... (Below threshold)
George:

SilverBubble is exactly correct. It would become
"taxation without representation." The government
is telling the church everywhere it can't take it's
message. But they want to take its money?

Here's a question for those... (Below threshold)
Dave:

Here's a question for those of you who may know more than me about this area.

Do non-profits have to comply with some sort of standard on where their money goes? Overhead costs vs. mission costs. If so, what happens when the overhead exceeds the limits?

Here's the hypothetical part: Suppose this non-profit is a church. Suppose that a very large percentage of their expenditures are for enhancing their physical properties (newer, fancier, better), with the minor part going to demonstrable charitable activities.

I guess where I run into a problem is contrasting the words of the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...", with the interpretation that anything dealing with what a church does, or what it does with its money, is off limits. I just don't read that in the words.

I also have a problem with churches whose primary function seems to be to get your 10% and recruit more people to tithe, but can't seem to devote much time, energy or funds to actual charity. But I guess that's my hangup.

Jay, I'm really surprised t... (Below threshold)

Jay, I'm really surprised to see you rattling off a shallow argument like that. The government doesn't demand a share of my backyard tomatoes and peppers, either, but that doesn't mean that they're "subsidizing" my garden. Or that I should be required to file reports detailing my recipes and compost usage. They have no claim. It's beyond the government's scope.

Yeah, the Roman Catholic Church has done some questionable stuff lately. That doesn't mean we need the government to start telling people how to run their churches. If criminal or tax misconduct is suspected then there's adequate oversight already. A fishing expedition through their books isn't called for. Assemble proof there's been misconduct and then move on it.

Besides, this change in the law will be much harder on little tiny churches like the one I attend than on the huge Roman Catholic infrastructure. I know Boston is a big Catholic town, but from reading the article it's like they've forgotten other Protestant denominations even exist. Much less other religions.

Hmmm... not a strong libert... (Below threshold)

Hmmm... not a strong libertarian vibe going here. I welcome the government keeping its nose out as many societal sectors as possible, especially religious institutions. When people talk about the separation of church and state, they're almost always using it in the sense to protect the public secular government from being co-opted by any one religious entity.

I think the greater concern, though, is to keep the government from corrupting and controlling churches through either carrots (disbursement of funds) or sticks (taxation). If you allow the taxation of churches, then you've also opened the door to a whole raft of further regulation. Don't trust a government to voluntarily limit the expanse of its power.

Besides, most churches have oversight committees composed of parishioners that monitor church finances to make sure they're above board. The exceptions to this and the occasional internal corruption is hardly a clarion call for the government to step in and resolve the issues by generating innumerable new problems.

Lastly, I had the very same reaction as jmaster to the subsidizing comment. It's to interpret churches not paying taxes as taxpayers de facto subsidizing them. Such a view can only hold if you view taxes as being something which, by nature, everybody is supposed to render instead of viewing money I pay in taxes as something which is rightfully mine and which, even when paid, continues to be "mine." There's no such thing as the government's money... it's the citizens' money. At any rate, that churches get to hang on to their cash and not fork it over only means they preserve control of the money, it doesn't mean they are being subsidized.

Jay is right about one thin... (Below threshold)
bullwinkle:

Jay is right about one thing, it is subsidizing churches when donations are tax deductable. Anything you can deduct your donations to is tax-payer funded. It's not that the churches themselves don't pay taxes, it's that the donations are deducted from the donors taxes that makes it a subsidy. I have no problem with that. When someone writes off a deduction to any charity it's them deciding how part of their taxes are spent.

It's a huge oversimplificat... (Below threshold)
-S-:

It's a huge oversimplification to suggest that churches become "for profit" taxation status based upon the presumptions and assumptions by some about appearances related to social issues.

SOME humans are corrupt and violate trusts both small and very large, but that's a problem of human nature and those specific humans responsible for the bad behavior and does not therefore assign those same corrupt standards to everyone else who shares even a tenuous relationship ("churches should be taxed because sexual abuse was done by some somewhere").

If and when you start regulating churches, you regulate religion and next thing you know, Kerry and Hillary and Dean have their wish and we're communist china in duplicate (sorry, but I couldn't resist my own generalization for to make my point, for to make the point here).

Among other and related human behaviors there is the issue that lawsuits are used and used often by people with economic resources to further their social positions. The little guy, however incorrupt, has little resort to a powerful (corrupt or not) person or group with deep financial pockets and lawyers to spare.

Thus, many churches are bailed out by wealthy patrons at times of trouble and they get to remain somewhat anonymous, at least appreciated for their idealism in the gifts involved. Changing the income status of churches to for-profit involves far more detrimental possibilities than not.

There should be a happy medium, and is, for most not-for-profits. Which still have substantial legal liabilities, just not the profit margins of for-profits.

And, what bullwinkle wrote (^^), in conclusion.

"I also have a problem with... (Below threshold)

"I also have a problem with churches whose primary function seems to be to get your 10% and recruit more people to tithe, but can't seem to devote much time, energy or funds to actual charity. But I guess that's my hangup. "

First of all, Churches are NOT charities, they are (in thoeroy) non-profit commercial organtizations. That is, they are generally organized as a business (corporation, usually), that promises not to work for the profit of the owners (however the owners are defined: A Catholic Parish's owner would be different than an Independent Baptist owners for example).

That our tax code implicitly connects charitable with non-profit is unfortunate.

Secondly, the tithe of Christian Churches (10%) is not money brought in for charitible purposes, but rather expressly for the churches expenses running the local church: supporting the pastor, the building, supplies, etc.


Sorry but if Marian Walsh i... (Below threshold)
WRox02132:

Sorry but if Marian Walsh is sponsoring it then Holy Name and St. Theresa's and St. John must be behind in their campaign contributions. Marian works on a cash only basis.

Krsitian,If church... (Below threshold)
Dave:

Krsitian,

If churches are not charitable organizations and if tithes are expressly for internal use, then I have absolutely no qualms about treating churches the same way any other fraternal not-for-profit is treated (e.g., The Elks, FOP, etc.)

I do disagree that that is what tithes should be used for, but agree that in all too many instances it is what they are used for.

Churches should continue to... (Below threshold)
JBrickley:

Churches should continue to be tax-exempt and I am surprised at the Catholic decision to not be accountable to their membership via full disclosure.

In many evangelical and more traditional Protestant churches members pay a tithe which can be as high as 10% of their income or more. In addition to this they may make additional contributions. The evangelical world has had it's fair share of financial scandals and many churches now provide donors with at least an annual financial statement showing how their money was used. In addition, all donors receive a tax form showing their charity payments for the prior year so they can claim them on their income tax.

One should be cautious of any church that does not provide full disclosure and subsequent tax forms. i.e. the church does not pay taxes but they should not be able to tell the donors to snod off when the membership demands accountability!

After all the Bakers actually had an air-conditioned dog house paid for by donations! This was just one of the outrageous abuses perpetrated by Jim who went to prison. I am amazed that Tammy didn't go with him!

One of the primary reasons for the split of the Catholic church into the Protestant was the disdain for the abuse of funds by the Catholic church. The priests, bishops, etc. abused the money and lived extravagant lifestyles paid for by the membership's donations. The use of gold and silk in the Catholic church was down right opulent! Take a look at a conservative Baptist church and you will find a plain and boring look and feel to the building. Plain wood pews, white paint, etc. Perhaps some stained glass windows and a pipe organ but little else in the way of flashy decorations.

Most of my churches donations go to missionary work and local services as well as it's own school, etc. The pastor receives a paltry salary and home paid for by the church. He has to maintain a day job to feed his family!

Funny, I don't see Catholic Priests working a day job to make ends meet.

JBrickley...moving past you... (Below threshold)
-S-:

JBrickley...moving past your obvious religious intolerance for Catholics, as to Catholic Priests, most if not all of them HAVE "day jobs" already and that is the ministry. They perform daily religious services. They meet daily with parishoners for counselling and other interactions of the interpersonal kind. They hear confessions weekly, sometimes daily in larger areas. They perform funerals, they teach in schools, they visit the sick and infirmed and suffering, they prepare and provide meals to the hungry, they sew and wash their own clothing, they...

Catholic priests are a terribly overworked lot. Our questions about most of them should be, do any of them ever take a day off? How about vacations?

Human beings who are Christians lead human lives like you do. Catholic Priests are human beings like Protestant Ministers and Non Denominational Charismatic ministers and more. Sometimes they even sleep late. But most don't.

I've even seen a Presbyterian minister asleep during services! Didn't make me dislike him for sleeping in...obviously, he was tired.

Do non-profits have to c... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

Do non-profits have to comply with some sort of standard on where their money goes? Overhead costs vs. mission costs. If so, what happens when the overhead exceeds the limits?

I don't know if there is a legal requirement, but every Baptist church I have ever been a member of does divide the budget up like this (but then the church body votes on and accepts the budget, and every member gets a copy).

Also, the SBC provides this type of information (one reason I like several of the SBC charities, is that a direct donation to that charity means that 100% of your donation goes to the actual provision of services and not towards overhead, since the overhead costs of SBC charities are paid for out of general cooperative program funds).

I honestly don't think the problem here is a lack of government oversight, but the fact that the Catholic church chooses to not be accountable to its members on the issue. I am not sure that the state should be given access to every church body, because of the behavior of one.

I also think the issue of state regulation comes into play here.

Bullwinkle (at least I think it was you) you made mention of church donations being tax deductible, but any donation to a 502c3 entity permits you to deduct the donation from your taxes. It isn't unique to churches.

Okay, let me be clear, the ... (Below threshold)

Okay, let me be clear, the special tax treatments religious groups are simply a gift of the states. That the states do this in no wise means the MUST do this. What they have given, they may take away. Churches have no constitutional right to special tax treatments, any more than homeowners or parents with children.

And given the hysteria with which many are attacking churches as be homephobic, partisan, and so on, it is probably not too much longer before Churhces will ahve to accept government 'approval' of their message or face losing tax exempt status.

And don't tell me that CAN'T happen. It can, as Churches (as all non-profits) are explicitly barred from electioneering or face loss of Tax exempt status. (I wish that it was enforced / observed by liberal organization as fully as by Churhces, but oh well...)

Okay.

Now Dave said -
"I do disagree that that is what tithes should be used for, but agree that in all too many instances it is what they are used for. "

First, tithes are a duty, a commandement of God (at least for the Jews/Christians, presumably Muslim):
- "Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year." Deuteronomy 14:22.

This is was not fro charitble works, it was instituted as a tax so that Israel could support the tabernacle (later Temple). The Levites (preists) were supported with this, as handling the priestly duties (pricipaly sacrifices) was enourmously time consuming, to the extent they could not otherwise work while performing their duties.

Later in the New Testament, the Tithe was described as
- "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. " 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.

This was set aside as God's money...not widows and orphans, not day care, not even school. It was money that was used to further God's work: supporting the chruch (paying for a meeting place, paying church bills, subsidizing a Pastor...), spreading the Gospel, edifying the Saints, etc.

Note, in many cases, charitible giving was given sacrificially (that is it was hard) ABOVE and BEYOND the tithe.
- "I command you to be generous to those who are poor or in need" Deuteronomy 15:11
- "Be generous, and you will be prosperous. Help others, and you will be helped" Prov 11:25
- "Sell all your belongings and give the money to the poor . . save your riches in heaven . . . for your heart will always be where your riches are" Luke 12:33–34
- "No one said that any of their belongings was their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had . . . the money was distributed to each according to their need" Acts 4,32–35
- "Open your homes to each other without complaining. Each one, as a good manager of God’s different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift they have received" 1 Peter 4,10

None of these commands were that the Tithe was to be used for those puposes (that is the Church itself didnot pay for them), but rather the indiviuals gave for those purpose (though the money was often given to Church so that it could administer the programs).

Now, it is also true that current Relgious practice and chruch administration have blurred this distinction, maybe not a much as our government(s) that take in Tariffs, Income Taxes, Excise Taxes, Property Taxes, Estate Taxes, Medicare Taxes, Social Security taxes, Unemployment Taxes, etc, and dumps nearly all the money into a general fund for a National Budget.

The Supreme Court decided i... (Below threshold)

The Supreme Court decided in Employment Division v. Smith that states were (in general) not required under the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause to give churches or religious activities an exemption from otherwise generally-applicable rules or prohibitions. That means that states have the power to require such disclosure - whether they will do so or not is a matter for their legislatures to decide.

I remember reading an ol... (Below threshold)
lincoln:

I remember reading an old book of my mother's("By love Possesed") by a James Gould Cousins.I've only heard of the author elsewhere in a column by WFB,who presumably knows almost everthing.Anyway,someone in this 1950's era novel asked a similar question(in the novel) and the answer was,"Because their parishioners vote".

Why can't parishioners vote... (Below threshold)
Half Canadian:

Why can't parishioners vote with their feet? If the Catholic church won't account for the money they're doling out, maybe the flock needs to look for a new shepherd.
Or at least act like it. That bluff might pull in some accountability.

I and my family are happy t... (Below threshold)
Dave:

I and my family are happy to assist a number of charitable and service organizations. It's the right thing to do. Organized churches have largely ceased to figure in my list, chiefly because of attitudes similar to those expressed by Kristian above. I am not happy about that, but neither am I happy about what I consider the falling away from the real message of the church. As I said much earlier - my hangup, not pertinent to the actual post.

But churches are required to register as tax exempt organizations, develop by-laws and comply with tax regulations just like other tax-exempt organizations, like schools, fraternal and service organizations and charities. Therefore, I see absolutely no reason they should not be subjected to the same degree of oversight as any other tax exempt organization. Not more - not less. Don't hand me the argument that they are CHURCHES and that they can and should police themselves. That's the same thing the accountants said, more or less, isn't it?

It's not that I don't trust churches, it's just that I don't see that any special privilege should or does apply to them insofar as satisfying the requirements of the tax codes - whatever they may be.

I'm not going to argue that churches should pay taxes. If the Elks and the Ruritans don't pay taxes, why should a church? But tax exempt status is conferred by law and code, not by Constitution. Requiring religious organizations to open their books for public accounting and to ensure compliance with applicable laws is only rational and only fair.





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