Seperation of Church and State
In the United States, churches are not automatically tax-exempt. Most are and it is easy for them to become so if they wish it, but there are a number of people, foolishly in my opinion, who think that the government granting tax exempt status to churches is a violation of the first amendment. I have a few reasons why I think the opposite is true, specifically that tax exempt status furthers the separation of church and state rather than hindering it, a few of those reasons follow:
- Churches that decide to become tax-exempt give up the ability to endorse and support political candidates, directly or indirectly.
- The power to tax is the power to destroy.
- Giving the government an interest in growing churches (which would expand tax revenues) is probably a bad idea, though those who support the taxing of churches don’t seem to think about this.
- The public assets that churches use, roads and the like, are not impacted by that use, one way or the other. At least no more so than by Goodwill Industries or the American Lung Association.
- Atheist organizations could hardly claim they should remain tax exempt if tax exempt status was plucked from churches. The same would be true of a number of other organizations. See number 2 about why that should scare atheists.
- It isn’t special. All 501(c)(3) organizations follow the same rules. If churches wish to support candidates they can do so, or they can claim tax exempt status and follow the same restrictions as every one else.
However, we now have a group of churches who are angling to preach in support of, or in opposition to, political candidates, record the sermons and send them to the IRS as a direct challenge to the laws governing tax exempt organizations. I assume this is a largely protestant undertaking, since the catholic church is largely in favor of these restrictions and has some additional restrictions of its own, priests cannot run for or hold public office, for example.
I don’t think the churches involved are going to win here because there are no laws prohibiting them from engaging in whatever political speech they wish to engage in and the courts have ruled before that the government need not grant tax exempt status to churches. As I have said, the flip-side is that if they do not do so, there is nothing to stop churches from engaging in any political activity they deem appropriate, and I rather strongly doubt the government could constitutionally place a prohibition on candidate support any other way.
I think that the question that will ultimately be decided is whether or not the government can restrict the political activities of any organization it grants tax exempt status to, not just churches. Since it is a voluntary surrender of the right to engage in certain political activities I don’t think they are going to be successful, but we shall see.
The only reservation I have ever had about this is that it essentially subjects religious speech to the scrutiny of the government, so it’s possible a court could eke out a limitation on the government there, and that probably wouldn’t be unreasonable. I would just imagine that the limitation would apply across the board to non-profits.
Disagree with me? Fine, lets tax churches and remember your position when churches band together and set up the biggest superPAC ever seen or imagined.