Friday, November 05, 2004

For Faith-Based Coercion, Dial 501(c)(3)

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."
Henry David Thoreau

You can't have your cake and eat it too. There's a sense of gutter simplicity that surrounds this election cycle and the suckwinds are already starting to blow. Not since another morally-challenged Texan occupied the Oval Office in the 1960s, have the seeds of karma been planted so wonderfully. That Texan was not Poppy Bush, of course; it was Lyndon Baines Johnson, who once remarked after signing Civil Rights legislation, that "[the electorate] will turn on us for an entire generation," and he may have been right.

Not because of civil rights, mind you, but because of another measure that came home to roost.

In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era, LBJ sought a legislative route to silence some of his critics - chief among them, the church. Encouraged by Johnson, the U.S. Senate passed a major tax code revision by a voice vote. Although Johnson’s revision was targeted specifically at nonprofit groups that were contesting his seat, churches—which also are nonprofit organizations—fell under the new tax code provisions.

From the CPA Journal:

Although the ban excluded churches and other IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations from active participation in the political process, years passed without major incident. Then, in 1992, the religious organization Branch Ministries, Inc. (BMI), purchased a newspaper advertisement urging Christians to vote against presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and the IRS initiated an investigation. In January 1995, the IRS revoked BMI’s status as a section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. By contrast, in the 1994 New York gubernatorial campaign, the IRS chose not to initiate an investigation when Governor Cuomo received vocal support from the pulpit of a Harlem church. In the very early days of the 2004 presidential campaign, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act was proposed as a means to reverse a portion of the 1954 legislation and to return First Amendment speech protection to America’s churches, synagogues, and mosques. That bill (HR2357) failed to pass the House in October 2002.

IRS regulations are clear that, while churches and parachurch organizations are restricted from endorsing or opposing a particular political candidate, they may educate about candidates’ viewpoints. This education can take the form of sermons, forums, debates, or voter guides. Less clear, as evidenced by the contrast between the Clinton and Cuomo scenarios, is the threshold between endorsement and education. The proliferation of legislation affecting the election process has further complicated the issue.

While the preznut was reciting his talking points memo about reaching out and healing the country, Rethugs were stating flatly that they had "the green light" to pursue a more conservative agenda, like oil exploration in wilderness Alaska and simplifying -- which means, rewriting for their political cronies -- the tax code. These same Rethugs have much thanking to do with the religious right, who in turn gave them a host of new Congressional voices, among them:

Tom Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma, has advocated the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and warned that "the gay agenda" would cripple the nation. He has also characterized his race as a choice between "good and evil" and said there was "rampant lesbianism" in Oklahoma schools.

Jim DeMint, the new senator from South Carolina, said during his campaign that he supported a state Rethug platform banning gays from teaching in public schools. He rationalized his position, "I would have given the same answer when asked if a single woman who was pregnant and living with her boyfriend should be hired to teach my third-grade children."

John Thune, who toppled Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, is an anti-abortion Christian conservative - or "servant leader," as he was hailed in a campaign ad - who supports constitutional amendments banning flag burning and gay marriage.

So in the coming weeks and months, while the blue puddle that was the Democratic Party begins to plot its way back to prominence, there is far more to consider while party leaders consider the "values-voter" phenomenon. And the wooden stake may just be the very tax code, from which the Rethugs want to subjucate the cause of free speech. Witness the election eve action against the NAACP for criticizing the preznut and his merry band of well-wishers, otherwise known as the right-wing branch of the Rethug party. Ever so quick to provide "wedge points" for an IRS investigation, the Rethugs have gone after the Sierra Club, the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) under the guise of providing the right paperwork or investigating its lobbying efforts.

But the important note is this: some 501 tax exempts can influence political policy, but 501(c)(3) organizations, charitable tax exempts, cannot.

Churches, however, tend to benefit the most from the 501(c)(3) designations available, in particular because they qualify for many of them automatically, whereas non-religious groups are forced to wade through a more complicated application and approval process. Non-religious groups also have to be more accountable for where their money goes, while churches, in order to avoid possibly excessive entanglements between church and state, do not have to submit financial disclosure statements.

Exemptions from property taxes represent an even larger benefit to churches -- there may be as much as $100 billion dollars in untaxed church property nationwide. This has created a problem and a corporate loophole, according to tax fairness advocates, because these exemptions amount to a gift of money to the churches at the expense of tax payers. For every dollar that government cannot collect on church property, it must make up for by collecting it from citizens; thus all citizens are forced to support churches, even those they do not belong to and may even oppose.

So the issue becomes one of fairness. Just as George Carlin -- of all people, and not to be confused with LBJ -- once remarked, "If churches want to play the game of politics, let them pay admission like everyone else."


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