Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Pulpit Initiative: Religion, Politics & Taxes

"If churches want to play the game of politics, let them pay admission like everyone else."   - George Carlin

Last Sunday October 2, 2011 was Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Several years ago the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) began a campaign to challenge the current laws restricting 501(3)(c) organizations activity, namely the ban on political endorsements and restrictions on political lobbying by churches.* The Pulpit Initiative has steadily become prominent among right-wing Christian Conservatives who would attempt to use the First Amendment to destroy the First Amendment. The goal of the Initiative is to openly violate the 501(c)(3) restrictions and force the IRS to prosecute (i.e. persecute) a church or churches. It would be gold for them. Pure. Gold. They want this. It would play right into the hands of the right-wing nut jobs, fundie Christians, the Fox News propaganda machine, and anyone who thinks the government is out to get Christians. 

You know...crazies.

“In their efforts to convince Americans that an impenetrable “wall” between church and state really exists, those pressing an aggressively secular agenda have persuaded many pastors and church leaders that their God-given right to freely worship, freely speak their faith, and freely assemble with other believers is at the mercy of bureaucrats.”

On the surface it is easy for many people to agree with their complaints. However their complaints are superficial, at best, and I suspect on purpose. True, the government of the United States of America has no right to control or limit the religious beliefs of its citizens. I wholeheartedly believe in and abide by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Right-wing Christians do not.

The Alliance Defense Fund and the participants in the Pulpit Initiative are purposely being vague and confusing the issue for their gain. The logic, or the legal imperative, of the political restrictions is that it prevents corruption and levels the political playing field by not allowing political parties, groups, institutions, and the like from using tax-exempt organizations (i.e. churches) as fronts for political ends. Their tax-exempt status could easily create avenues of "money laundering" whereby political groups or candidates can use exempt organizations without having to report the financial activity. It's a blackhole of dirty political activity.

The political restrictions in no way violate the First Amendment as it does not limit the free speech or the religious practices of churches. It does, however, limit their ability to be tax exempt which also applies to more than just the churches within 501(3)(c) groups. That’s a big difference. No one is getting arrested or told to be quiet. Revocation of tax exemption does not equal violation of the First Amendment. The parties challenging the political ban on 501(3)(c) groups are claiming that the restrictions limits their ability to preach their religion how they see fit, but this is completely false. The restriction states that they cannot name a political candidate to support or to oppose. Additionally, no one is saying they cannot preach that homosexuality is a sin and that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Actually, in many cases, it's not even illegal for them to support legislation such as Prop 8. Lobbying has a line that they cannot cross, but it doesn’t restrict their religious or their political freedom. So what is the religious limitation? There isn’t one. There is no infringement of First Amendment rights. They simply cannot benefit from religious tax exemptions while basically operating as a PAC.

These groups are acting as if tax exemption status is a right granted to religious institutions under the Constitution. It is not. It is a privilege with a specific set of rules enacted in order to protect the political system from shady practices and, quite frankly in my opinion, protect the churches and its congregants (citizens) from being used as pawns in political machinations.  

"The government has a compelling interest in maintaining the integrity of the tax system and in not subsidizing partisan political activity, and Section 501(c)(3) is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that purpose." Branch Ministries Inc. vs Rossotti


Extra info:

Thanks to Jason for providing some conversation on legal arguments.

If you are interested in my take on The Legality of Tax Exemptions for Religion in the U.S. click on the hyperlink. It’s not perfect and I need to update it to include some corrections, but I believe the argument is sound.

*I thought this was too much to insert into the text (see
obtrusive and boring), but I wanted to include it as an FYI. The following is the ADF’s reasons for opposing the Johnson Amendment. From the Pulpit Initiative Executive Summary:
  • The amendment violates the Establishment Clause by requiring the government to excessively and pervasively monitor the speech of churches to ensure they are not transgressing the restriction in the amendment. The amendment allows the government to determine when truly religious speech becomes impermissibly “political.” The government has no business making such decisions.
  • The amendment violates the Free Speech Clause because it requires the government to discriminate against speech based solely on the content of the speech. In other words, some speech is allowed, but other speech is not. The Supreme Court has invalidated this type of speech discrimination for decades.
  • The amendment also violates the Free Speech Clause by conditioning the receipt of a tax exemption on refraining from certain speech. Put simply, if a church wants the tax exemption, they cannot speak on any and all issues addressed by Scripture. This is an unconstitutional condition on free speech.
  • The amendment violates the Free Exercise Clause because it substantially burdens a church’s exercise of religion. The government does not have a compelling reason to burden religion in this way.