August 9th, 2004
Back to opinion page.
The tax code should not silence free speech
The Family Research Council reports that a group of Leftist activists known as the "Mainstream Coalition" are sending "spies" to churches hoping to catch them in violation of Internal Revenue Service regulations regarding political advocacy for non-profits. With this in mind, I submit the following:
Basically, the tax code penalizes churches if they make certain statements (such as a specific endorsement of a political candidate) from the pulpit or through some other official church communication. However, this is in violation of two clauses of the First Amendment, forbidding government from restraining freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
To correct this disparity, U.S. Representative John Hostettler advocated for the passage of HR 2357, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act. This would remove IRS regulations that punish churches for making political statements.
Why is this important? While the main focus of churches is (and should be) to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Christians are also obligated to be "salt and light" in a culture consumed by darkness. Christians were instrumental in both the anti-slavery movement and the civil rights movement, as well as the move to protect unborn children from abortion. Christians are following God's command to be a voice for those who cannot help themselves.
As Dr D. James Kennedy pointed out in Congressional testimony, American churches played an important role in the Revolutionary war. In fact, England referred to these churches as the "black regiment". Churches often make political endorsements, on both sides of the ideological divide. Mario Cuomo received one such endorsement, and it is well known that Jesse Jackson has been supported by black churches.
The concern here, obviously, is that the IRS code will be applied with partisan motivations. It is known that disgraced ex-President Bill Clinton used the Internal Revenue Service to harass political opponents. Given the active role many evangelical Christians take in conservative political activism, it would be very tempting for Senator John F. Kerry to follow Clinton's example. Kerry must make his position clear on freedom of speech and religion, and promise that he will not abuse hsi power to intimidate political opponents.
There are many good reasons to give tax-exempt status to religious organizations like churches, synagogues and mosques. One, obviously, is the charitable work they do. All three of the world's major religions have commandments regarding helping the poor. The "lost" revenue in taxation is made up by the social services the government does not have to provide.
Furthermore, it has been often said that "the power to tax is the power to destroy". Given the lean budgets many churches operate on, taxation is a very real impediment to freedom of religion.
There are legitimate reasons why a church might want to speak for or against a specific candidate. For example, a church may believe it is obligated to oppose a candidate who is attempting to implement policies (such as supporting government recognition of homosexual "marriages") that are in opposition to Scriptural teachings. The use of the tax code to silence political speech by churches Also often has a chilling effect on pastors' willingness to speak on moral issues, such as abortion and cloning.
What benefit is there to restricting political speech by churches? Does a stifling of political dialogue somehow serve a public good? Considering the positive role many churches have played in reform movements, I think the answer is a clear "no". Indeed, the effort by the "Mainstream Coalition" to bring down the IRS regulatory hammer is a fairly obvious attempt to intimidate churches they disagree with. That is far more un-American than any "violation" of the tax code and should be roundly condemned.