When Church Met State

A brief word on religious liberty in America, courtesy of two stories that popped up at the end of this week.

The first of these is a report by the Human Rights Campaign that the Roman Catholic Church expended roughly $2 million to keep same-sex marriage out of Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota—the four states that voted on the issue early this month.  (The first three ultimately opted to legalize gay marriage; Minnesotans rejected a proposition to constitutionally ban it.)

Second, a lawsuit brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation against the Internal Revenue Service, charging it with “violating the U.S. Constitution by allowing tax-exempt churches and religious organizations to get involved in political campaigns.”

You might be surprised to learn—as I was—that there is indeed a provision in the U.S. tax code prohibiting “any campaign activity for or against political candidates” by tax-exempt organizations, such as churches.  The IRS has a history of ignoring possible violations of this compact, and to that extent, the Freedom from Religion Foundation may well have a case.

The reason the existence of such a clause took me aback is illustrated by the aforementioned report about the Catholic Church.  The fact is that religious organizations have insinuated themselves into politics for many years—a state of affairs they have made no effort to conceal and which no thinking person denies.

And that’s fine by me.  I cannot conjure a justification to prohibit any particular group from engaging in the political process.  The more the merrier.  After all, had the Catholic Church been denied the opportunity to pour millions into defeating gay marriage, I would have been denied the pleasure of seeing it fail.

My objection concerns the business about being exempt from taxation in the first place.

If I may quote from the First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Perhaps I am being obtuse, but it seems to me that the government waiving any and all tax obligations for a religious organization would constitute “respecting an establishment of religion.”  A congregation has every right imaginable to establish itself on American soil, but I do not see what entitles it to a government subsidy.

Where I sympathize with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and those who share its views, is its claim that such churches are given an undue and unfair advantage in the electioneering game by these very subsidies, and I would feel much better about affirming their right to engage in politics if they did so on a level playing field.

As it stands, they do not.  The money they spend on candidates and ballot initiatives—to say nothing of the money they spend on everything else—is effectively inflated by the fact of its not being subject to taxes the rest of us have to pay.  Even billionaire financiers (in theory, at least) are not afforded that kind of leg up by the government.

Stop giving churches tax breaks, and the whole problem clears up immediately.

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