Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Politics, Taxes, and Churches

As an atheist, I have little love for the tax-exempt status that churches enjoy. Nevertheless, it troubles me that a church should jeopardize its tax-exempt status if a sermon is deemed too specifically political. Something about that sounds very wrong to me.

The magnificent First Amendment to our Constitution protects the freedom of religion, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of speech--especially political speech. So when a priest addresses his congregation about the intersection of politics and faith, is that not triply protected speech? And was not the tax-exempt status of religious institutions carved out precisely to protect churches from just this sort of government intimidation or suppression via the tax code?

Furthermore, the Supreme Court recognizes that contributing financial and material support to a political candidate is another form of exercise of free expression. So should not churches be able to do this as any other organization could? It seems to me somehow that the Bill of Rights has been turned on its head. Instead of liberating religious institutions, it has become a tool to bind and muzzle them.


Raised By Republicans said...

Churches are and always have been first and foremost political organizations. They should be treated as such.

I would gladly exchange taxing all "charitable" organizations for the ability to tax the big churches.

The state would do a much better and comprehensive job of providing the charitable activities and wouldn't claim that they could exclude this or that category of people from their good will for violating their sacrosanct principles.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I think it the political/non-political distinction built into the tax laws is fundamentally flawed and a bit coercive in its effect. RBR surely knows that taxing churches or giving to churches is a political non-starter. As someone who sits on the governing board of my parish, I know how devastating tax rules would be to our finances. Whether or not it is "fair" in the abstract, taxing churches like other businesses now would be a sudden and dramatic financial hit to those institutions. In poor rural and urban areas, that would be deadly. This will not be tolerated politically.

So what has to be done is find a middle ground that gives churches the freedom to speak without financial penalty while relieving taxpayers of the need to support political activities. Let all the donations be tax exempt to donors, but tax churches on their expenditures for non-charitable activities or any business activity also. This is no harder, really, than the audits of home office deductions.

Raised By Republicans said...

How does one separate the political activities of an organization that is primarily devoted to the indoctrination of its membership and works constantly to encourage conformity of thought on a range of issues?

LTG, as you have a particular experience and expertise in these matters, please tell us what percentage of your church's budget goes to charitable activities that provide direct material benefits to the poor that they could not otherwise get from secular sources.

Anonymous said...

When I have a supreme court controlled by 5 guys who are totally dedicated to a Nazi choir boy in Rome who is some old homosexual in a dress, why, I might have some real questions about whether any freedom at all should be granted to any church.

Please, give me one honest, NOT "I believe," but dollars and cents reason that all religions should not be taxed as entertainment enterprises and forced to forfeit every thing classified as religious, right down to the Mormon's underwear, if they so much as open their mouth on any topic that could even be considered "political."

LTG, I would especially like your response to Raised by Republicans
to include the great job the churches did in Ireland in the workhouses, in Canada in the "assimilation" homes, in the United States in the "convert them and give them a hoe" at Carlyle PA, and Indian School at Phoenix. In Alaska, by the give them a "Jesuit" and he'll straighten them out.

In fact, I would really like to see an independent audit of any so called charity in the United States.

Don't know why I get so upset about things like this. I think it may have something to do with the Willy Pete the US is using in afghanistan. Hell, mix it with a little napalm and then search the village while the bodies are still burning. Cure you of that religion nonsense instantly.

Raised By Republicans said...

Anonymous 3:07,

Actually, LTG has just posted on the tragic history of the Catholic Church in Ireland (see "More Horror in Ireland").

While I sympathize rather strongly with your anti-clerical attitudes, I must admit that if organized religions were run by people like LTG, I'd have considerably fewer objections to their domination of social and political life in the USA.

Bob said...

I think this is a very insightful and challenging post.

I was in the "speech in churches should be completely free, and completely taxable" camp, but your argument that the tax-exemption was to prevent political interference is telling.

Even if churches wouldn't become insolvent if they weren't exempt, being subject to the tax code is just a different lever for government interference. At least the current state makes the interference less insidious (changing a conventionally accepted church's exempt status is more obvious than fiddling with brackets and deductions.)

Perhaps you've converted me to the "free speech in churches, let them keep their tax exemption" camp?

Dr. Strangelove said...

Glad you appreciated this thread, Bob! This is something I've been mulling over for a while myself.

Raised By Republicans said...

But we all pay taxes and don't feel that our ability to speak freely in unduly constrained.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Well... Just talk to the owner of a massage parlor and you'll soon hear how taxation, fees, etc. can be used by a state or city to force out businesses it deems undesirable. Even charitable organizations like soup kitchens can be driven out if they are considered a draw to the homeless.

The tax exemption of churches is there to ensure the government cannot manhandle them in this way. Remove that restriction and, in due time, the Mormons will be persecuted in Illinois, the Episcopalians will find themselves hounded out of Utah, the Jews will be driven out of Alabama, and the Muslims will find it impossible to maintain a mosque in any Red state. I exaggerate and stereotype wildly here of course, but I presume you get the point. This is not theoretical. I am quite certain these were exactly the sorts of abuses that historically gave rise to the tax exemption in the first place.

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG wrote: "what has to be done is find a middle ground that gives churches the freedom to speak without financial penalty while relieving taxpayers of the need to support political activities."

What is this about taxpayers supporting political activities? We are talking a tax exemption, not a government handout.

Bob said...

I guess I feel a slight need to elaborate: if I were founding a new country, devoid of precedent, I'd probably advocate making churches and donations to them subject to the same taxes as any other organizations and donations.

But we have the situation we have, and accepting the status quo tax situation seems less destructive than trying to institute a change in taxation that most likely won't eliminate the risk of gov't discrimination against religions for political gain, while destroying most existing churches.

But then, on balance I think most churches are a public good, and that's not a universally held view.