I saw the following story yesterday while reading the news: 33 Pastors Flout Tax Law with Political Sermons. Anyone who has spent long enough in the Bloggernacle, with the constant hand-wringing in some quarters over the Church losing its tax exemption due to interference in political issues such as Prop 8, is familiar with the basics. Section 501(c)(3) organizations, which are tax-exempt under federal law, may not participate in partisan political campaigns or risk losing their exempt status. What the above story reports is the next step in potentially eliminating this limitation.
This is a storm that has been brewing for some time in my mind. Religion and partisan politics have become increasingly intertwined in the last 20 or so years. (Duh) This years Republican primary process included one candidate who was a former pastor and did not seem to have completely left his old career behind him. The IRS has occasionally jumped on a church here or there for excessively politicizing its services (see the All Saints case from a couple of years ago for a particularly weak case that the IRS picked up), but to my knowledge such things are rare. But both pastors and politicians want to push this thing further. Hence, the above move to create a test case that would hopefully render the politics ban for tax-exempt institutions void by judicial order.
One can of course debate the merits of the politics ban. On one side, it is certainly an infringement of free speech- for many people, their religious beliefs both lead to certain positions on public issues, but also compel them to speak publicly about them. When individual members of a church do so, its OK, but when someone stands at a pulpit and does it, the IRS finds that unacceptable. On the other side, the politics ban insures that we are not giving a tax subsidy to organizations whose purposes are primarily partisan and political (501(c)(3) organizations include a wide variety of institutions). I can say that I have personally been grateful for the tax-exempt regulations on more than one occasion during my attendance at Church meetings.
Which brings me to the point that I really wanted to make here- if the politics ban on tax exempt entities disappears in a couple of months, what happens with the Church? Will it abandon its policy (pretense) of political neutrality or does it not depend on the threat of losing the tax exemption? Is there a doctrinal foundation for political neutrality standing apart from the preservation of the Church’s tax exemption and if so, what is it?
As a final note, as someone who has studied the tax exempt issue in some depth, I do not buy into the arguments that the Church’s tax exemption is already at risk due to its participation in campaigns such as Prop 8. So lets steer comments away from that and towards addressing the questions I asked above.