Friday, September 22, 2006

Wow

The IRS (the favorite intimidation tool of the Bush family) is threatening a church with loss of tax exempt status for an anti-war sermon.

Just when you think those bastards in the White House have finally blown past all barriers of decency and un-American behavior, a new horror arrives.

Do you suppose he's just damning the torpedoes and is trying to own the legacy he'll have of being the worst president ever?

7 comments:

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Just to provide a dull legal moment, here's a reminder that the IRS rules on loss of tax exemption for political endorsements by churches aren't, as most people think, a corollary of the first amendment church-state separation principle. It's not the Constitution but rather IRS regs promulgated under LBJ that penalized all non-profits for political endorsement: it was a political maneuver not even aimed at churches primarily.

The tax-exempt status of churches doesn't arise from either governmental favoritism or from seeing them as essentially society-benefiting non-profits, but has classically been understood as a necessary protection against church-state entanglement.

The increasing IRS harassment of churches for political activity on both the left and right, as well as the fuzziness of the regs (which has a chilling effect on ecclesial speech, as nobody wants to accidentally trip the wire and cost their church big $), is therefore contrary to the spirit of the first amendment both in its free speech guarantees and in its attempt to prevent church-state entanglement.

The only way out of the stupidity is to go back to Plan A, which worked well: the government doesn't fund the churches, tax the churches, or pay any attention to what the churches and their representatives are teaching the flocks.

Yahmdallah said...

Exactly.

Anonymous said...

The basic assumption behind IRS regs on nonprofits is that no one gets representation without taxation. i.e., if you don't pay taxes you don't get to be politically active. Non-profit groups - the classical examples of which are soup kitchens, second-hand stores, and churches - remain tax-exempt by avoiding polical involvement.

In the mid-1980's I was briefly involved in Operation Rescue. In their literature they made perfectly clear that donations to OR were not tax-deductible: political lobbying was one of the main reasons OR existed, they knew perfectly well that they could not be tax-exempt, and therefore donating to them was truly sacrificial. They paid taxes, and their donors got no bennies from the government for their gifts.

I agree with OHS that our current regs are too fuzzy; I do not agree with her that the solution is to make all churches tax-free regardless of speech or activity. I doubt that anyone will ever be able to define "political speech" with such crystal clarity as to remove all doubt, and the IRS's current role of vetting religious speech and acitivities for political advantage is fraught with hazards that I hardly need to describe here. If churches paid taxes across the board then the government could ignore their speech, which would *reduce* church-state entanglement. Then those evangelical churches which currently serve as local organizational headquarters for the Republican Party, and black churches and mainline churches which do the same for the Democratic Party, could do so above-board and without taking advantage of the rest of us taxpayers.

Joel

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Joel,

My position comes in part from being a fairly hardline first-amendment purist (if I had my way, most defamation law would be done away with, too). But ISTM that, unless the state can show that the entity in question exists primarily for political advocacy, it needs to be hands-off.

I believe you are incorrect about the "no representation without taxation" principle. Not only is that not historically, a judicial, jurisprudential, or legislative principle (though it may be in the process of becoming one de facto) -- I would be grateful for citations showing me to be wrong! -- but such a principle would have clearly repellent public policy consequences. Why not just go back to the days when property ownership was a prerequisite for the vote?

Anonymous said...

The first amendment would be well-served by getting the IRS out of the business of judging how much political speech is too much. Treat all churches the same, either by taxing them all or by not taxing any of them.

Unfortunately the second solution isn't workable, at least not if we want PAC's to be taxed. It becomes hard to explain why Rev. Falwell's church doesn't pay taxes when he endorses Republicans from the pulpit, but the Virginia Republican Party does have to pay taxes when they endorse Republicans in their ads.

"But churches are not *primarily* focused on political activity!" you retort. I agree that they shouldn't be, but some are. As I acknowledged in my first posting above, I used to move in some highly politicized evangelical circles, and I can assure you that many churches are more political than religious. I have no doubt that this is as true among Democratic churches as it is among Republican ones. Do we really want the IRS to be judging how much political involvement is too much (which they are now doing)? Or should we just tax them all the same and put the message police out of work?

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Actually I'm okay with the state determining that a "church" is, in fact, a front for a political action committee, or an escort service, or just an extortionate scam *cough*scientology*cough*. That's done all the time. If we didn't trust the IRS in particular to do it, it would be easy enough to make sure there was an appeals process that goes outside the agency (and I think that's the case, though I'm not very familiar with that process).

As long as it's a bona fide religious organization, I don't really care if most of their time and resources at some point are politically directed. The White Rose student organization in Germany during WWII was, I believe, a religious organization that ended up (for bona fide religious reasons) primarily working against the Nazi Party (i.e. political activity), which would seem to be a parallel to your example of Falwell's church. When politics becomes mostly about morality, churches may end up being mostly about politics.

Sleemoth said...

Bill Maher talked about this on his HBO show last week. Bradley Whitford, a guest, is a member of the church in question, and heard the sermon firsthand. The theme was a three-way debate between Jesus, Bush and Kerry, and Jesus wipes the floor with both of them.
We've all heard stories about ministers in fundie churches telling parishoners they'll be thrown out of their church if they don't vote for Bush, or won't be "saved." The real ugliness here is the one-sidedness. But what can one expect from these evil torturers?