Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tax Free Candidate Shopping Weekends

This past weekend, more than 1,000 pastors planned to recommend to their flocks specific candidates to vote for, and then send the recorded sermons to the IRS.  The hope was that the IRS would be forced to act against them, creating a legal case to settle whether or not it is constitutional for the government to withhold tax exempt status from a church that engages directly in political activities.

This is the Lexington and Concord of the War on Religious Liberty, and the pastors are firing the first shot.

 An amendment was made to the IRS tax code in 1954, stating that tax-exempt organizations are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom is the group organizing the protest.  The problem is that the group wants me to pick up the tax slack for their political posturing.  Churches are free to endorse one candidate over another today, as soon as they accept the same tax rates and regulations as every other group that does the exact same thing.  Freedom isn’t free.  I read that on a bumper sticker in the church parking lot on Sunday. 
“Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax,” the IRS says in its online guide for churches and religious organizations seeking tax exemption.

That sounds good to me.  As a taxpayer, I am tired of footing the bill for those churches that feel a sense of entitlement and believe that we of the non-47% owe them something.  Stop redistributing my tax dollars to right wing front operations for specific parties and specific candidates.

“There are church leaders that believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they’re entitled to tax exempt healthcare, to tax exempt food, to tax exempt housing, to you name it. But that’s– it’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.  These are churches that pay no income tax.” - This was me, caught on a secret video recording at a fundraiser in May. 

I recognize that there are circumstances that make this a close call.  But I draw a clear distinction between issue advocacy and candidate campaigning.  Issues and individuals are not the same thing. 
A church has a set of moral codes, divined through their faith traditions, that they have every right to promote to their congregations.  They can set behavioral standards for the believers.  I do not believe that a church actively participating in the political process by advocating for pro-life legislation should endanger their tax exempt status any more than a church advocating against a war should have that status withheld.  No problem with that. 
The line is crossed for me when a church organization advocates for one candidate over another.  I do not deny their right to do so.  I deny their claim of tax exempt status when doing so. 

When a congregant is told from the pulpit that a vote for Candidate A is the equivalent to damnation for your soul, it’s a fairly compelling argument in favor of taxing that organization as a political entity and not solely a religious one.  When that same congregant is told that support for abortion is the equivalent to damnation for your soul, that is well within the preaching of their faith.  When a church puts God on the side of an imperfect man (or woman), it pits that same God against his/her opponent.

There are no gray areas in moral teachings.  The contrasts are stark.  There is good and there is evil.  You enjoy the reward of Heaven and eternal life, or you roast in the eternal fires of Hell.  A vote for one person over another should not be cast with this fear hanging over your head, and if it is, my tax dollars should not finance it. 

Speaking of the IRS regulation, Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, told FoxNews.com, “The purpose is to make sure that the pastor -- and not the IRS -- decides what is said from the pulpit.  It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”  

Hey, Eric – say whatever you want, but don’t ask for special treatment while doing it.

“It is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Stanley. “They just prefer to put out these vague statements and regulations and enforce it through a system of intimidation … Pastors are afraid to address anything political from the pulpit.”

Yes, the IRS uses fear and intimidation to enforce the law, but their methods pale in comparison to the fear and intimidation of threats from the pulpit of eternal damnation and condemnation to the fires of Hell for going against the will of God. 
By the way, stop by my church.  There is very little ‘fear’ about addressing anything political from the pulpit in my town.  They wear red, white and blue vestments and for the most part do not endorse any specific candidates.  They close each sermon by condemning the concept of hope, but that is surely a coincidence.

My distinction between issues and individuals is probably not a winning argument with the 1,000+ pastors who voiced their political candidate preferences to their congregations on Sunday.  I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives by sacrificing their tax exempt status.

That would be a bridge too far.

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