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Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Politics, Churches, and Taxation
Should the ability of churches to speak in favor of, or even to endorse political candidates be regulated by the government? This is the framing of an issue that is part of the agenda of christian conservatives. In an op-ed in USAToday, Richard Garnett asks "Campaigning from the pulpit: Why not?".

His answer is, in essence, why not indeed? The central question that he defines is whether government or the churches themselves should determine the content of the church's message. Framed like that, the answer seems obvious. Only near the end of his essay does he raise the real issue - the fact that churches are tax-exempt. The government's interest in the content of the church's message only is raised when there is suspicion that the church is violating the ban on partisan activism that applies to all charitable organizations.

His solution seems bizarre. He seems to envision the ban on partisan activism remaining in place, but that it be left to the pastors, rather than the IRS, to determine whether the church has followed the law.
"...it should not be the place of government officials or IRS agents to impose and enforce a line between pastors' stirring sermons and partisan stump speeches."
"Churches and congregants, not bureaucrats and courts, must define the perimeter of religion's challenges. It should not be for the state to label as electioneering, endorsement, or lobbying what a religious community considers evangelism, worship or witness."

It is hard to believe that anyone would take seriously the notion that those who are subject to a law should be empowered to decide if they have broken the law.

An equally problematical position taken by some activist pastors is that the ban on partisan activism be lifted entirely. This would result in a system in which taxpayers would be subsidizing the campaigns of a select group of (religiously correct) political candidates. Its a rather transparent effort to weight the political balance, and it would also lead to churches becoming funding vehicles for political parties.

None of us want the government in the business of regulating speech - but the taxpayers in general have no obligation to subsidize institutions that advocate on behalf of one candidate or party over others.

Perhaps a blanket elimination of the religious tax-exemption would solve the problem directly and decisively. Churches could establish subsidiary non-profit organizations to operate their charitable works - organizations that would be tax-protected like other charities. But if the churches themselves have a mission focused on evangelizing and partisan activism to the extent that Garnett claims, they should not expect to be subsidized by the tax base as a whole.

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2 Comments on "Politics, Churches, and Taxation"
Any group with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status is legally bound to abide by the IRS rules or lose their tax-exempt status. The IRS clearly prohibits some activities by 501(c)(3) groups - such as explicitly endorsing/opposing candidates, or using tax-exempt resourses to support political candidates.

If 501(c)(3) religous groups explicitly endorse/oppose particular political candidates, or use 501(c)(3) resourses to benefit particular candidates, then they clearly become Political Action Committees (PACs), and should lose their tax-exempt status under IRS regulations.

Free speech is protected under the Constitution - and 501(c)(3) religious group leaders regulary air their views regarding particular legislative policy issues. However, one might argue that this is a protected, but backhanded way of actually endorsing (or opposing) individual political candidates whose views may align (or differ) from those expressed by variou religious group leaders. These "guilt by association" inferences seem to present a murky area for the law. On the one hand expressing these views is protected by free speech, on the other hand the views are clearly intended to influence voters to vote for partilcular candidates.

Anonymous Laja @ Thu Apr 20, 09:58:00 AM EDT  
I think that the lRS rules should not be changed for religious groups. All 501(c)(3) groups should abide by the same rules. Enforcing the rules is problematical however.....

Anonymous Texas @ Sun Apr 23, 09:16:00 AM EDT  
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