Assuming I can complete this essay before midnight, today (October 7, 2012) was Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a day championed by conservative Christians in a bold-faced attempt to defy the law and actively endorse a political candidate in their Sunday sermons.
Just to level-set this issue, the law in question is the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 change to the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits tax exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Assuming you agree that it’s reasonable for the government to collect taxes (and even if you don’t agree, the Sixteenth Amendment gives the right to collect taxes to the congress…), and assuming you further agree that there are organizations out there that deserve not to be subject to taxation, the Johnson Amendment is not unreasonable.
The legal definition of a tax exempt organization — which includes but certainly is not limited to churches and religious institutions — is outlined in Internal Revenue Code section 501. There are reasons why organizations deserve to be exempted from taxes, and the separation of church and state is, for the most part, a reasonable one.
A study earlier this year estimated that religious tax exemptions cost taxpayers (on all levels) approximately $71 billion every year. And the authors of this study were conservative in their estimates, omitting any monies they could not actually quantify.
There are some small congregations that openly concede that they would have to close their doors were it not for their tax exemption. And I’m not trying to make any arguments that say all churches should lose all of their tax exemptions, but some of the exemptions don’t really make any sense: take investment income as an example. If I invest in a stock or a mutual fund and a church invests in that same stock or mutual fund, then we should both be taxed on the earnings I make from those investments…
So to get back to Pulpit Freedom Sunday, these pastors are going up in front of their congregations and explicitly telling members of their congregations to go out and vote either for a particular candidate or against a particular candidate. The pastors have every right to their own opinions; don’t misunderstand me. Just like any other citizen, they have the right to vote either for or against any candidate as they wish… They can even let their vote be influenced by what they believe.
But when the First Amendment was passed, and further, when Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase “Wall of separation between church and state” in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, this is overt political campaigning from the pulpit is exactly what he hoped to avoid.
Now. I can respect why an event like this is taking place. It is not uncommon for a person with a tax grievance to knowingly break the tax law in order to challenge the law itself. The arguments made by the proponents of a day like today basically say that the pastors’ free speech rights are being infringed, by not being allowed to endorse a candidate for office.
Except that they’re not. They’re already getting enormous benefits by being tax exempt. And in response for the granting of those benefits, the government simply asks that the organization not have an official position on an election. It’s why trade organizations and unions aren’t tax exempt. Or, for that matter, Political Action Committees.
Or to quote George Carlin, “I am sick and tired of these fucking church people… If these guys want to be part of the political process, you know what I say? Tax them! Make ’em pay their fucking admission just like everyone else!”
Now if only the IRS would allocate the resources to doing exactly that…