The Freedom from Religion Foundation, an advocacy group dedicated to “nontheism” and the separation of church and state, just got the go-ahead from a federal judge in Wisconsin to proceed with a lawsuit against the IRS for failing to enforce a ban on political speech in churches. The lawsuit claims that churches, in many cases, are free from the strict IRS scrutiny that other 501(c)3 organizations undergo, effectively allowing political speech for one form of tax-exempt organizations but not others. Is the government playing favorites, or, as many in the faith community argue, do churches have a constitutionally protected right to free speech?
The rationale behind tax exemptions in general stems from philosophy of “shared responsibility,” which holds that the well-being of society is the duty of both government and private citizens. Organizations which engage in activities that the government would otherwise have to do (such as providing relief for the poor or education), or organizations that provide a valuable service that the government cannot provide (such as worship services or controversial scientific research) receive a tax-exemption. While the definition of what constitutes a charitable organization has expanded over time, churches have always been included.
The specific regulation against pulpit politics stems from a 1954 amendment that then-Senator Lyndon Johnson sponsored, stating that in order to retain their tax-exempt status, churches must refrain from direct political activity (the right points to Johnson's reelection campaign, which faced stiff opposition from two local nonprofits, as the motivation behind the amendment). Between the inauguration of the income tax in 1894 and this amendment, churches enjoyed tax-exempt status without any regulations on their political speech.
Direct political spending, on the other hand, has never been tax-exempt. However much good you think your $20 donation to the Obama campaign did, don’t try to claim it on your tax forms. If a church effectively becomes a political organization, then its members’ donations, being tax-deductible, would result in the federal government giving a financial incentive to one form of political activity over another. One way to solve this problem, of course, is to make political donations everywhere tax-exempt. But this would come with its own set of problems — namely, we’d have to come up with another philosophical rationale for giving out tax exemptions in the first place, since political donations hardly fall under the umbrella of “shared responsibility.” From the IRS’ perspective, placing limits on churches’ political speech doesn't have anything to do with a particular dislike of churches. Rather, if churches are allowed to make political speeches from the pulpit, then the whole system of tax exemptions would stop making sense.
Still, to many in the faith community, this issue is unequivocally about free speech. For many churches that would be forced to close without the benefit of their tax-exempt status (which exempts them from paying a slew of income and property taxes, while making donations from the congregation tax-deductible), threatening to take away a tax exemption in exchange for freedom of speech borders on coercion. Though endorsing a candidate would hardly send a pastor to jail, granting him free speech only in exchange for a hefty financial penalty hardly makes it “free.” The left, which has built up a system of large government benefits over the years, now presides over a system that is in many cases dependent on continued government assistance. When it insists that citizens and organizations conform to their policies to receive such benefits, what seems reasonable to them can be coercive to others. Barring churches from engaging in politics, though logical from a legal point of view, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of religion as something quaint and easily compartmentalized from life, rather than the deeply holistic creed that it is.
This issue may be coming to a head soon. Just as the Freedom from Religion Foundation proceeds with its lawsuit, others from the faith community are pressing Congress to abolish the regulations on political speech altogether. In the worst-case scenario, one side will win, and either religious freedom or “shared responsibility” will be dealt a blow in America. Hopefully, a solution emerges that protects both. Until then, I’m all ears.