Friday, October 5, 2012

The Costs of Free Speech for Pastors: How to Serve both the Almighty and the Almighty Dollar

By Nathan Rothwell

An interesting experiment is set to unfold on the morning of Sunday, October 7.

Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom has been promoting that day as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an event in which thousands of American religious leaders intend to spit in the face of IRS rules which limit the political activities of tax-exempt organizations. The event has been heavily promoted on Fox News via everyone’s favorite pastor-pundit Mike Huckabee, and appears to be a massive display of civil disobedience aimed at provoking a lawsuit against the IRS.

Proponents of Pulpit Freedom Sunday claim that their right to free speech was taken away from them by the so-called “Johnson Amendment.”  Weary of those who were using non-profit organizations to unduly influence elections, then-Senator and future President Lyndon Johnson helped pass an amendment to the United States Tax Code which specifically prohibits 501(c)3 organizations (such as religious institutions) from endorsing or opposing any candidate for public office, either directly or indirectly.

I will admit that a government edict which places restrictions on the right to free speech for non-profit organizations directly influences the separation of church and state, one of this country’s oldest and most firmly held ideas. According to Pastor Jim Garlow, a spokesman for the Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement, the IRS indeed has a wide brush to control or censor speech from the pulpit, or else threaten to revoke the tax-exempt status of a religious organization which defies the Johnson Amendment.

That being said, however, I and many others see an obvious solution to this problem: You want your right to free speech in full, like every other American? Then give up your tax-exempt status, which is a privilege afforded to only a chosen few. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Garlow and others, and for obvious reasons. According to former White House senior policy analyst Jeff Schweitzer, churches own an estimated $300 to $500 billion in untaxed property in the United States.  So while most pastors hold their service to the Almighty in the highest regard, they aren’t about to forget about their devotion to the almighty dollar.

The pastors who champion Pulpit Freedom Sunday seem to forget that tax-exempt status is a privilege in this country, guaranteed nowhere by the Constitution. I’m not so sure religious organizations should be afforded this privilege at all, for the following reasons:
  • Tax breaks for churches force non-religious Americans to subsidize religion. $500 billion is a ton of revenue to miss out on, which the government makes up for by passing the cost on to those who actually do pay taxes. Thus, every one of us pays money to ensure the indefinite existence of the church, even if we never make a direct donation to or ever set foot inside a religious institution.
  • Churches are unique among other tax-exempt organizations. Unlike homeless shelters, hospitals, and other non-profit organizations, the church does not exist solely to perform charitable work. Community worship is a public event, where congregation members are instructed on how to worship and live their daily lives.  While it’s not fair to compare all religious leaders to those like Terry Jones, how do activities like book burning and anti-Islamic xenophobia constitute “charitable” work, worthy of earning tax-exempt status?
  • Religious institutions already unfairly act as political machines. Again, when organizations like the Mormon Church pump untold amounts of money into “defending traditional marriage” and other issues which are entirely political, this sort of work cannot be accurately described as charitable. I’m not completely opposed to the church getting involved in politics, but why are they and they alone permitted to involve themselves with pre-tax dollars, while the rest of us are forced to use after-tax dollars?
The most important reason “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is a farce, however, is this: most Americans simply do not support the idea of churches freely endorsing or opposing candidates. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center this summer, two-thirds of Americans believe houses of worship should not endorse any particular political candidate over another, compared to just 27% who believe they should.

The majority in this country believe in a true and complete separation of church and state – just as it’s illegal for the government to favor any specific religion over another, so too should it remain illegal for any religion to endorse any political figure over another.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The word “church” is used liberally throughout this piece, and is intended as a catch-all phrase which includes synagogues, mosques, and all religious institutions which take advantage of tax-exemption. While “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” appears to be largely driven by Christian pastors, please consider this a criticism of all religious leaders who intend to participate, and not simply a criticism of Christianity.


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