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January 1, 2013 6:25 AM   Subscribe

Should A Church Be Treated Differently By The IRS From Other Non-Profits? The Freedom from Religion Foundation has sued the IRS claiming unequal treatment. Secular non-profit companies must file numerous and costly forms and reports to maintain their non-profit status. Religious companies even those that duplicate the functions of the secular non-profit are exempt from such requirements. The FFRF asks (pdf) that the laws be applied equally. Previously
posted by 2manyusernames (156 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
It seems pretty clear cut to me, either allow the non-profits to electioneer or don't. I haven't seen any reasonable justifications for letting religious groups do so while atheist or secular groups would not be allowed.

If a Church wants to electioneer to promote an anti-gay agenda, non-profits with a pro-gay agenda should have the same right to promote their view.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:31 AM on January 1, 2013 [17 favorites]


Just an FYI for anyone on a mobile device, the link under "asks" goes to a pdf.
posted by zarq at 6:32 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


This actually seems quite reasonable to me. If you want the same tax treatment, you have to follow the same rules. It'll be interesting to see how this works out. The argument that adding reporting requirements for religious organizations is unnecessarily burdensome implies that they also are similarly burdensome for non-religious nonprofits. I wonder if it's actually more likely that the rules will be changed for secular organizations rather than for churches.
posted by wintermind at 6:33 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I also agree completely that any electioneering on the part of a non-profit -- church or not -- should result in the loss of their nonprofit status. It's ridiculous that the IRS won't investigate complaints, a perfect example of how fear of political backlash interferes with an agency's ability to do its job.
posted by wintermind at 6:38 AM on January 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


The presentation in the FPP is a little confusing -- there are two separate lawsuits being discussed here. The one from November is about differential enforcement of the electioneering laws between religious and selular non-profits. That's the one linked under the word "asks" and the one described in the first link. The second one, from December, is the one about financial reporting requirements that's actually described in the post, and is described behind the "Religious companies" link.
posted by escabeche at 6:41 AM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


escabeche: "The presentation in the FPP is a little confusing -- there are two separate lawsuits being discussed here. The one from November is about differential enforcement of the electioneering laws between religious and selular non-profits. That's the one linked under the word "asks" and the one described in the first link. The second one, from December, is the one about financial reporting requirements that's actually described in the post, and is described behind the "Religious companies" link."



Oops, looks like I really screwed that up. Meant to only have links about the new lawsuit and only mention the old one under the "previously" link. Sorry about that
posted by 2manyusernames at 6:49 AM on January 1, 2013


It's really sad that Billy Graham has been depicted in the first link as the best example of a Christian leader involved in Republican politics. He spent his entire career as a deliberately apolitical figure, all Jesus and only Jesus all the time. He mostly got it right (except this -- wow) and at the end of his career he stated that his biggest regret was not staying out of politics entirely. One thing he got right: working with Martin Luther King. One time he bailed King out of jail.

This year his organization began actively campaigning against Obama. Why? Well, his son Franklin Graham has long been politically active. Billy Graham has never spoken publically about the 2012 election and is currently 93, in ill health. One theory is that Franklin is putting out press releases in his father's name without his knowledge. If that is the case, I feel deeply sorry for him.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:51 AM on January 1, 2013 [21 favorites]


Religious groups are not mainly protected by the laws governing nonprofits. Take all those away if you like; they still shelter behind the constitutional freedom of religion guarantees.

Here's a Georgetown U professor saying it's time to give up on the U.S. Constitution. Also, Fareed Zakaria.
posted by jfuller at 6:52 AM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Thanks, jfuller, that was interesting.
posted by wintermind at 7:02 AM on January 1, 2013


Well that would fuck over a number of highly dodgy secretive organizations. I'm for it.
posted by Artw at 7:08 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


For starters religious non-profits much less religious companies have all the same requirements as secular equivalents, its churches and fundamentally religious entities that are exempt.

"The plaintiffs seek a declaration that preferential application and informational filing exemptions for churches and certain other religious organizations and affiliates under §501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as the equal protection rights mandated by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment,"

These guys have a pretty warped view of what preferential means. The application and informational filing requirements for non-profits to receive tax exempt status that the IRS has are there primarily because the non-profit community has demanded them as it requires the kind of structure it provides to maintain legitimacy. It is not an onerous punishment the IRS doles out but a helpful service it provides to the community to help it weed out bullshit artists by establishing basic standardized structures for governance that are reasonably resistant to fraud. Making the IRS force these kinds of governance structures on churches would not only put it in the really uncomfortable position of regulating fundamentally doctrinal questions in non-obvious ways but is also just unnecessary, churches have been wrestling with out to effectively govern themselves for a lot longer than non-profits have.

Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches, Conservative synagogs, Baptist churches, Sufi mosques, Orthodox synagogs, Sunni mosques, all have their own very different and pretty equivalently effective governance structures that align with their ideas about how we should govern ourselves. They neither need nor want the kind of standardization that the non-profit community both needs and wants and this kind of meddling in other peoples religious affairs is exactly why we have to protections of religious liberty from regulation in the first amendment.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:09 AM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


But that's okay, Blasdelb. If they think they can govern themselves just fine, they can totally opt to ... as long as they want to pay like a for-profit.

Wanting it both ways is a problem.
posted by adipocere at 7:33 AM on January 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yes, Churches should be taxed, period.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:33 AM on January 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


However they aren't for-profit in any remotely meaningful sense of the word
posted by Blasdelb at 7:34 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, in being unable to be non-profits, religious entities are at all kinds of disadvantages that are fucked up but not necessarily inappropriate. For example, even though the vast majority of preachers are people who make shit wages of non-profit workers but have similar expensive educations to them that train preachers as the community organizers, safety net providers, charity fundraisers, social service coordinators, and educators that they are, they do not qualify for the same student loan deferments and reimbursements that non-profit workers who provide similar community services do.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:37 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not how churches govern themselves that's the issue, Blasdelb. It's how they're attempting to govern the rest of us.

The fact that they don't want to be regulated doesn't really stand in opposition to the need to regulate how they spend their tax-free money in the political arena. If my religion tells me that I'm required to do 75 miles per hour in school zones, it doesn't grant me an exception from the law, no matter how much I don't believe it should apply to me.

I'm totally okay with religions going tax-free and unregulated, as long as they're not using that status to influence political races. At that point, the churches need the same kind of regulatory structure as non-profits do, to maintain legitimacy and weed out fraud.
posted by MrVisible at 7:39 AM on January 1, 2013 [21 favorites]


"It's not how churches govern themselves that's the issue, Blasdelb. It's how they're attempting to govern the rest of us."

These are two pretty disparate issues that have been kind of awkwardly shoved together here. You might be surprised to find that both I and most churches actually agree with you.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:41 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey, if you're not, say, Scientology what's the big deal? Open those books!
posted by Artw at 7:44 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


protections of religious liberty from regulation in the first amendment.

Probably obvious, but the free exercise clause does not excuse compliance with neutral, generally applicable laws. I don't think this would be an issue since filling out forms does not interfere with religious practice.
posted by Winnemac at 7:44 AM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


They aren't shoved together at all. It's asking for The Same Rules For Everyone.
posted by adipocere at 7:45 AM on January 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


From jfuller's link:
What would change is not the existence of these institutions, but the basis on which they claim legitimacy. The president would have to justify military action against Iran solely on the merits, without shutting down the debate with a claim of unchallengeable constitutional power as commander in chief. Congress might well retain the power of the purse, but this power would have to be defended on contemporary policy grounds, not abstruse constitutional doctrine. The Supreme Court could stop pretending that its decisions protecting same-sex intimacy or limiting affirmative action were rooted in constitutional text.
Heh. We'd only start pretending legitimacy arose from some other source and carry on fighting wars, levying taxes, defining the breadth of civil rights.

The advantage a constitution offers -- if not this Constitution always -- is that it provides an agreed upon arena in which the struggle for legitimacy may take place, where the blows struck are rhetorical (even occasionally rational), rather than mortal.

Anyhow. Amend the parts that don't work. The Constitution provides a couple ways to do so.
posted by notyou at 7:46 AM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Blasdelb, I'm glad you and most churches agree with me. Is there a better way to keep the tax-free money churches receive from being a disproportionate advantage in politics than asking the churches to adhere to the laws that they're already subject to?

Keep in mind that the lawsuit isn't trying to get any new regulations enacted; it's just trying to make sure the laws that the churches already operate under are actually enforced.
posted by MrVisible at 7:57 AM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think the "same rules" argument is as good as the "no exemption" argument. I case for the exemption is going to become much more profound for American churches that have ostensibly plateaued in membership and are moving to commercial ventures to sustain communities in lieu of new families. An early but by no means only example is Ebenezer's, a coffee house run by National Community Church near Union Station in Washington, DC. If missions don't work, win them over with mammon. Wise religions are planting more luxurious multi-use sites in desirable locations, as the Catholics, Baptists, Christian Scientists and others did when America was a young country. Look for more Islamic and Jewish youth schools and temples facing large university towns' main avenues; Scientology outposts which include temporary housing (such as Washington, DC); and Tibetan Buddhist education and manufacturing centers, such as the large center in Berkeley, CA which has expanded into the city centre with a higher education non-profit that is also a Zen center (for tax reasons).

The question is whether new rules would create more opportunities to skirt taxes. I like the example of a church which put the signs of the cross on the perimeter of its parking lot so to claim a tax exemption (they lost). Or the landlord who tried to skirt tax by building a shrine in his lobby (he lost).
posted by parmanparman at 8:01 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches, Conservative synagogs, Baptist churches, Sufi mosques, Orthodox synagogs, Sunni mosques, all have their own very different and pretty equivalently effective governance structures that align with their ideas about how we should govern ourselves. They neither need nor want the kind of standardization that the non-profit community both needs and wants and this kind of meddling in other peoples religious affairs is exactly why we have to protections of religious liberty from regulation in the first amendment.

However they aren't for-profit in any remotely meaningful sense of the word

Also Benny hinn


Not for Profit my butt
posted by NiteMayr at 8:06 AM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


[Hello and happy new year. If you want to have this conversation here you have to act like adult people who realize that your opinion is only one of many opinions and if you can not show that you can actually discuss this topic in a decent fashion we can prevent you from discussing it at all. MetaTalk is, as always, your option if you feel that your rights are being unfairly infringed upon.]
posted by jessamyn at 8:09 AM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


Two suits here, MrVisible.

The first, filed in November, is the simple one that asks the IRS to enforce the electioneering prohibitions. Nobody really disagrees with this. It reaffirms our trust in the Establishment Clause.

The second, filed last week, is the stickier one. It asks the government to become more deeply involved in the operation of religious organizations, which, if you think about it, is kinda like asking for the opposite of what's asked in the first suit.
posted by notyou at 8:09 AM on January 1, 2013


Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches, Conservative synagogs, Baptist churches, Sufi mosques, Orthodox synagogs, Sunni mosques, all have their own very different and pretty equivalently effective governance structures that align with their ideas about how we should govern ourselves. They neither need nor want the kind of standardization that the non-profit community both needs and wants

But doesn't this create a huge problem? If a church isn't organized as a non-profit and subject to the same regulations regarding its governance structure as non-religious non-profits, then what is it?

I don't think we can just say "well, it's a church, it's different" because that would create a separate, religious-based class of organizations that would have to be recognized by the government which would be at odds with the Establishment Clause.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:09 AM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can someone please explain this to me? American laws and taxes are surreal sometimes. Is it that churches don't pay tax and can make money and influence politics, while charities cannot?
posted by marienbad at 8:29 AM on January 1, 2013


After reading some background from findlaw, maybe the FRF has a shot at winning the second suit:
Then, in 1970, a nearly unanimous Court sustained a state exemption from real or personal property taxation of ''property used exclusively for religious, educational or charitable purposes'' owned by a corporation or association which was conducted exclusively for one or more of these purposes and did not operate for profit. 132 The first prong of a two-prong argument saw the Court adopting Justice Brennan's rationale. Using the secular purpose and effect test, Chief Justice Burger noted that the purpose of the exemption was not to single out churches for special favor; instead, the exemption applied to a broad category of associations having many common features and all dedicated to social betterment. Thus, churches as well as museums, hospitals, libraries, charitable organizations, professional associations, and the like, all non-profit, and all having a beneficial and stabilizing influence in community life, were to be encouraged by being treated specially in the tax laws. The primary effect of the exemptions was not to aid religion; the primary effect was secular and any assistance to religion was merely incidental.
And for RonButNotStupid:
For the second prong, the Court created a new test, the entanglement test, 134 by which to judge the program. There was some entanglement whether there were exemptions or not, Chief Justice Burger continued, but with exemptions there was minimal involvement. But termination of exemptions would deeply involve government in the internal affairs of religious bodies, because evaluation of religious properties for tax purposes would be required and there would be tax liens and foreclosures and litigation concerning such matters. 135
IOW, some oversight by the government is inevitable, but the authorities should default toward less oversight (less "entanglement"), where practical. One assumes this prong is also responsible for religious orgs' "automatic exemption" [PDF] whereby they don't need to file 501(c) forms with the IRS if they are in compliance with the law's requirements.
posted by notyou at 8:32 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Churches are prohibited from "electioneering," same as charities are, marienbad. The FRF is arguing in the first suit that the government is not enforcing the prohibition.
posted by notyou at 8:33 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Can someone please explain this to me? American laws and taxes are surreal sometimes. Is it that churches don't pay tax and can make money and influence politics, while charities cannot?"

The US government is constitutionally prohibited from taxing churches, however the IRS considers entities that influence politics in a couple big red line ways to be unregistered lobbies and not churches that are subject to tax. The problem is that they haven't been enforcing this as it is really awkward to do and will cost a hell of a lot more than any tax they could ever hope to receive.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:35 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


adipocere: "They aren't shoved together at all. It's asking for The Same Rules For Everyone."

Most non-profits are actually able to lobby and name specific preferred candidates, with different kinds of limitations for different kinds of non-profits, the second lawsuit is in fact trying to maintain our current system of different rules appropriate to the different circumstances of religious entities and the various kinds of non-profits. While the constitutional justification for the prohibition on candidate naming in pulpits is constitutionally somewhat murky, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" is abundantly clear. Congress has precisely zero authority to regulate religious doctrine through the IRS.

Winnemac: "Probably obvious, but the free exercise clause does not excuse compliance with neutral, generally applicable laws. I don't think this would be an issue since filling out forms does not interfere with religious practice."

The FFRF is intentionally confusing the issue by focussing as much as possible on paperwork and forms like some kind of buzzword; the primary problem is what those forms actually mean. Non-profits are required to have corporate boards with specific minimum numbers of members, chairpersons, and officers who hold all of the power over decisions about money, and forming these structures to be able to accurately fill out the forms, which are themselves quite simple, is where the hassle actually is. Problems with governance and how to manage it are pretty inherent to organized religion and most denominations and sects formed at least partially as ways of experimenting with new kinds. The Methodist way of having all of the assets owned by regional conferences of elected lay people that supervise conference bishops who supervise churches that govern themselves with a general committee that sends members to the global General Conference to make doctrinal decisions and elects members to specific boards who do much of the actual managing of churches while supervising the staff and pastor, is a huge part (in addition to minor doctrinal differences) of what makes us Methodist rather than Presbyterian who have structures that are fundamentally different but that are similarly complex and effective. Even the more conservative churches are pretty good at this sort of this, they have to be, nothing kills a church like fraud, abuse, or the other kinds of things standardized non-profit structures are designed to make more obvious.

TL;DR: Churches actually defrauding members, pastors actually embezzling funds, and money laundering are under current law just as illegal as non-profits and their boards doing the same thing. What the 'forms' are for is providing various standardized one-size-fits-all molds for making fraud obvious but this is both constitutionally impossible and just unnecessary as churches already do pretty much just fine without interference.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:42 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


If they don't need the forms, the atheists don't either.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:50 AM on January 1, 2013 [12 favorites]


jfuller's link to the op-ed about abolishing the constitution is a really interesting proposal and deserves a FPP of its own.
posted by young sister beacon at 8:51 AM on January 1, 2013


If they don't need the forms, the atheists don't either.

Although that is a punchy soundbite (and a notion that I think most of us can agree on in principle), it is so far off the mark of what is going on here and what the two lawsuits are ostensibly about that I'm not sure it does anything but confuse the issues. If an atheist organization wishes to operate a non-profit charity and a church also wishes to operate a similar non-profit charity, then yes, those two organizations should be subjec to the same organizational and compliance requirements regardless of the religious belief of their members and founders. Nevertheless, there is something deeply wrong with the idea that the government should dictate how churches themselves (as opposed to the separate non-profits owned and run by those churches) are organized and internally governed.
posted by The World Famous at 9:14 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nevertheless, there is something deeply wrong with the idea that the government should dictate how churches themselves (as opposed to the separate non-profits owned and run by those churches) are organized and internally governed.

Given that they handle large amounts of donations, could you identify what that is?
posted by jaduncan at 9:19 AM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Drinky Die's Atheist Slip 'n Slide Health Club with weekly Sunday gatherings should not have to adhere to different rules from a Church. You can't privilege belief in the name of respecting freedom of religion, it's contradictory.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:21 AM on January 1, 2013 [10 favorites]


The US government is constitutionally prohibited from taxing churches, however the IRS considers entities that influence politics in a couple big red line ways to be unregistered lobbies and not churches that are subject to tax. The problem is that they haven't been enforcing this as it is really awkward to do and will cost a hell of a lot more than any tax they could ever hope to receive.

Well, and because of what it would do to their vote totals at the next election. It would seem that the central issue that churches sit inside a de jure protected class with limitations on their actions. It is de facto politically impossible to enforce those restrictions, so churches effectively get to be politically campaigning organisations with no external regulation of finances or indeed (as the Catholic Church found out) even DAs willing to take cases related to child abuse.

That creates a de facto very protected class indeed. The question is then what one does about that, or if the US political class should continue to do what they are doing and ignore breaches of existing law.
posted by jaduncan at 9:25 AM on January 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


That "abolish the constitution" op-ed seems pretty weak sauce to me.

The second paragraph starts with,

"Consider, for example, the assertion by the Senate minority leader last week that the House could not take up a plan by Senate Democrats to extend tax cuts on households making $250,000 or less because the Constitution requires that revenue measures originate in the lower chamber."

Five minutes of Googling finds me this link, and many others, that point out that it's been long understood that "only bills to levy taxes in the strict sense of the word are comprehended by the phrase “all bills for raising revenue”; bills for other purposes, which incidentally create revenue, are not included."

Which is to say that the Senate Democrat bill is, technically, about defining the terms under which tax cuts end, and so it's perfectly legitimate for such a bill to originate in the Senate - it's not actually levying taxes. McConnell was just engaging in some boilerplate Republican anti-tax blather.

It's hardly strong evidence that the whole Constitution is borked.

Most of the rest of the op-ed is a shining example of the Perfect being the Enemy of the Good - unfortunately, the author seems to side with the Perfect. Good just ain't good enough for him.

Blech.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:25 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


churches already do pretty much just fine without interference.

It sounds like you're assuming that fraud is not a problem in religions while it is a problem for secular non-profits, and it's not obvious why that would be the case. If anything, the complete opacity of many religious organizations when it comes to how they handle their money seems like it would make it much easier to cover up any disreputable behavior. And I'm being inclusive with the word disreputable here; it doesn't need to be outright fraud for it to be disreputable, especially in organizations like churches where donors may have some tacit assumptions (or at least aspirations) for how their money will be spent. Churches may look like they're "doing fine" about that, just because in many cases (but not all) we have no way of knowing otherwise.


Nevertheless, there is something deeply wrong with the idea that the government should dictate how churches themselves (as opposed to the separate non-profits owned and run by those churches) are organized and internally governed.

I'd argue that there's something deeply wrong about the government treating non-profits that call themselves religions differently from those that don't. How you want to resolve this is a reasonably tough question, but I don't think it's impossible (e.g., allow any organization to exempt itself from the governance requirements, or require that governance be documented but not necessarily standardized, etc.).
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:29 AM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


Five minutes of Googling finds me this link, and many others, that point out that it's been long understood that "only bills to levy taxes in the strict sense of the word are comprehended by the phrase “all bills for raising revenue”; bills for other purposes, which incidentally create revenue, are not included."

Which is to say that the Senate Democrat bill is, technically, about defining the terms under which tax cuts end, and so it's perfectly legitimate for such a bill to originate in the Senate - it's not actually levying taxes. McConnell was just engaging in some boilerplate Republican anti-tax blather.


I think that may be a debatable interpretation on "levying" and "creating" revenue. And while IANA constitutional scholar, the guy who wrote the article is and the "revenue bills must originate in the house" law is one I've seen cited in several different places so I will take him at his word. In any case, he uses it as one of many arguments against the constitution that he makes in the full article and all of which he presumably outlines in the book he's written on the subject, mentioned at the end of the article.

Not to derail the very interesting discussion at hand here, and I'm not saying I agree with the article, but I do think this is a separate discussion that could be very interesting.
posted by young sister beacon at 9:47 AM on January 1, 2013


The US government is constitutionally prohibited from taxing churches.

Not true. The first amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

You're mistaking the idea of something being constitutional and something being required by the constitution. The Supreme Court decided in the 70's that tax exempt status for churches was allowed using the rationale that notyou bolded above, that the purpose of doing so was secular and benefited religion only incidentally. The court did not say that tax exemption was mandatory.
posted by Winnemac at 9:54 AM on January 1, 2013 [19 favorites]


Most non-profits are actually able to lobby and name specific preferred candidates, with different kinds of limitations for different kinds of non-profits, the second lawsuit is in fact trying to maintain our current system of different rules appropriate to the different circumstances of religious entities and the various kinds of non-profits.

The distinction, if my knowledge of non-profit status is correct, is that donations to apolitical non-profits are tax deductible while donations to political non-profits are not. 501(c)3 versus 501(c)4, basically. My understanding is that the second lawsuit is challenging the IRS to investigate 501(c)3 orgs that are behaving politically while enjoying the ability to raise funds from their donors as tax deductible.
posted by gjc at 10:14 AM on January 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


jfuller : Religious groups are not mainly protected by the laws governing nonprofits. Take all those away if you like; they still shelter behind the constitutional freedom of religion guarantees.

Absolutely! And I would have no problem with that. Want to campaign? No tax exempt status for you. Want tax exempt status? No campaigning for you. Pick one.

The issue has nothing to do with religion - You-as-an-individual can believe whatever you want, Uncle Sam has no say in that; when it comes time to pass the plate, however, you need to decide whether you-as-an-organization want to function as a (tax exempt) charitable organization or proselytize (and pay taxes). Simple as that.

Except, the IRS refuses to enforce its own rules. In some cases, because the "religion" has infiltrated them; in others, because as others have pointed out, it wouldn't look "politically expedient" to literally rob (the throne of) Peter to pay (Hank) Paul(son). Either way, throwing out the constitution doesn't provide the answer - Enforcing it does.

Look up at your browser's titlebar, it says all we need to know about the "right" answer here.
posted by pla at 10:26 AM on January 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


To be clear, the electioneering laws don't stop a church from taking an anti-gay stance. Churches are free to agitate on behalf of a bill, position, or measure, as my church did when they handed out "People of Faith Support R-74" sign and buttons in favor of our marriage-equality referendum or when they organized protests against the Iraq War. What they CAN'T do is levy any kind of support for a candidate or a party. And a lot of churches can't keep their fingers out of even that narrowly prohibited pie.
posted by KathrynT at 10:37 AM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


The distinction, if my knowledge of non-profit status is correct, is that donations to apolitical non-profits are tax deductible while donations to political non-profits are not.

gjc gets to the core of the problem that is obscured in most of this discussion. The issue isn't non-profit vs profit. All non-profits are 501 organizations. But the real difference is the subdivisions of 501 organizations, the most important of which is 501(c)(3) which applies to religious organizations and charities.

All non-profits are exempted from federal taxes. Non-profit simply means that an organization cannot distribute profits to shareholders, unlike for-profit corporations and businesses. This is no big deal because most non-profits don't have any profits to tax anyway. They take in donations and then spend them. There is no profit to tax.

An example of a political non-profit is Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS. It collected millions in donations and spent them on political campaigns. There were no profits to tax and this is perfectly legal. But here is the key point. Donations to a political non-profit are not tax-deductible for the donor.

At issue here is a special sub-category of non-profits called 501(c)(3), which is a religious (church) or charity organization (e.g. Red Cross). The important difference is that donations to a 501(c)(3) organization are tax-deductible for the donor. For example, Mitt Romney donated millions of dollars to the Mormon Church, a 501(c)(3). For his donations, Mitt Romney received tax deductions that saved him millions of dollars in taxes. This is one of the major reasons his tax rate was below 15%.

In exchange for this tax deduction benefit, a 501(c)(3) organization agrees not to get involved in promotion of politics. The problem is that many religious organizations violate this agreement. They can't have it both ways -- allowing tax-deductions for their donors and doing politics at the same time. They need to choose one or the other.

So the key point is not about non-profits. There are lots of non-profits that are involved in politics, including atheist ones. It is that some churches want to be treated as charities for tax deductibility of donations and also be involved in politics at the same time. That is a violation of law.

Tax exemption of non-profits is a big nothing. Generally there are little or no profits to be taxed so there is no loss of revenue to the government. The big loss in government revenue comes from the deductibility of donations to churches by the donors on their tax returns, not the church's tax return.

If you choose to donate to a political campaign, you cannot take a tax deduction, but churches provide a loophole around this restriction, allowing church members to take a tax deduction on what is effectively a political donation.
posted by JackFlash at 11:03 AM on January 1, 2013 [21 favorites]


I'm an atheist, so I'd love to see churches taxed. Too often ostensibly religious institutions shelter commercial activities (like owning real estate) from taxation for no good reason. But the tax status of churches is distinct from their right to speak on political matters, including endorsing candidates.

Churches ought to have the right to campaign, whether or not they are taxed. And their tax status ought not to depend on their agreement to remain non-political. That's just crazy, and it depoliticizes religion as if faith were something different from having beliefs about what is right or wrong and how we ought to live together.

As an atheist, I recognize less difference between myself and the faithful than perhaps the faithful do. We're both atheists when it comes to Zeus and Thor, after all. I just believe in one fewer god. So there really isn't much difference, and I think it's wrong to try to silence my fellow citizens. Tax churches or don't; but don't make depoliticized, merely private faith a condition of remaining tax free. A conditional non-interference is not non-interference, it's a threat. That's coercive and, frankly, what the 1st Amendment was designed to prevent.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:07 AM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not for Profit my butt
posted by NiteMayr


Churches often generate huge profits by holding real estate tax free. That 200 acre parcel in Long Island with restrictive zoning and no nearby highway exit? Just hold on to it until the zoning can be changed and the roads lobbied into existence. That could take a while, so no one else can afford to pay the taxes on the property and sit it out. Last I checked the Catholic Church was the largest land holder on Long Island.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:13 AM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm an atheist, so I'd love to see churches taxed.

Again, the issue isn't taxation of churches. Lots of non-profit organizations get involved in politics and are not taxed, for example, Crossroads GPS or MoveOn. The issue is taxation of donors. You can contribute to a political non-profit organization like MoveOn, but you don't get to take a tax deduction on that donation because it it classified as 501(c)(4), not a 501(c)(3). On the other hand, you can donate to a church and get a tax deduction. Because of that tax deduction, churches are prohibited from doing politics. Choose one or the other.

It taxation of donors not taxation of churches that is the issue. The IRS grants a church or charity 501(c)(3) status if it is non-profit and does not participate in politics. This allows donors to deduction donations. If a non-profit is political, then it is classified as a 501(c)(4), which prohibits donor tax deductions.
posted by JackFlash at 11:25 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


As an atheist, I'd love to see secular groups get the same policy backing as religious groups especially when it comes to political action. But meanwhile, why not just exploit the fuzziness of the definition of religion by starting a pro-choice, pro-gay rights advocacy group funded by the Church of Cthulhu?
posted by deathpanels at 11:32 AM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Given that they handle large amounts of donations, could you identify what that is?

I don't understand your question. I don't think there's anything wrong with the government dictating that a church cannot defraud anyone and applying other such measures. I do, however, think there is a problem with the notion that the government should dictate the organizational structure and internal governance of the organization, if that makes sense. Does that answer your question?

I'd argue that there's something deeply wrong about the government treating non-profits that call themselves religions differently from those that don't.

I agree completely. Merely calling a non-profit a religion should not exempt that non-profit from the rules that apply to other non-profits that, aside from the label "religion" are indistinguishable from it. I also don't think tithes and other religious offerings should be tax deductible as charitable contributions, but I think actual charitable contributions to religiously-affiliated charities should be. I'll gladly take the deduction as long as it's offered, but as a matter of policy I wouldn't keep that rule the way it currently is.

I can't help but wonder whether, in this thread, the distinction between a church and church-owned charitable and other organizations is being blurred or simply ignored, and I think that such blurring makes it impossible to intelligently discuss the issue. I also generally have no problem with the notion of churches being taxed or of churches making financial disclosures to the government (they do in non-U.S. countries) except to the extent that that sort of thing opens the door to disfavored religions being unjustly treated by abuses of that taxation and government financial disclosure system or to favored religions being treated in a way that creates government enforcement of religious issues or favoring of government "approved" sects (see, e.g., Otto Per Mille in Italy).

But meanwhile, why not just exploit the fuzziness of the definition of religion by starting a pro-choice, pro-gay rights advocacy group funded by the Church of Cthulhu?

Because the legal definition of religion is not quite fuzzy enough for that to work.

Drinky Die's Atheist Slip 'n Slide Health Club with weekly Sunday gatherings should not have to adhere to different rules from a Church. You can't privilege belief in the name of respecting freedom of religion, it's contradictory.

I agree wholeheartedly. I think certain atheist organizations should certainly be treated as churches, to the extent that they are indistinguishable from churches in every respect other than the specific belief system about religion that they hold as their unifying cause. I'm not sure a health club would fit within that category, but it would - just like religion does - require a case-by-case analysis with certain parameters.
posted by The World Famous at 11:36 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think certain atheist organizations should certainly be treated as churches

See, that's the fundamental disconnect here. I think religious organizations should be treated like any other organization. I have no idea why I need to adhere to some unifying belief or be indistinguishable from a Church to earn special rights like believers have.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:49 AM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Because nobody ever died for the right to do Pilates as they choose.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:52 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everyone who ever died for freedom of religion, if they really meant it, died for freedom from religion as well.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:53 AM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


This year his organization began actively campaigning against Obama. Why? Well, his son Franklin Graham has long been politically active. [...] One theory is that Franklin is putting out press releases in his father's name without his knowledge.

And they still lost, la la

Here's a Georgetown U professor saying it's time to give up on the U.S. Constitution.

Yeah, I'm not with that. You could claim we could draw on the same kind of rich body of traditions that Britain does, but they're not really doing much better at the moment. At least theoretically the Constitution guarentees certain rights; it's true, there's wiggle-room in the document as to whether it should be judged by the founder's intents or as a living document. But a lot of that wiggle-room was purposely created by people seeking their own way; it has always been the case that, one way or another, the opinions of extremely rich people mysteriously end up having all kinds of excuses and justifications made for them, regardless of what they are.

At least forcing them to find a way to hang those justifications on the Constitution means they have to go through some kind of intellectual contortion to push those ideas forth.

However they aren't for-profit in any remotely meaningful sense of the word

How about the megachuches that have Starbucks inside them? (Yeah, I know, you can probably find some justification for that. It is funny though. HAAA HAAA HAAAaaaaaaaa)
posted by JHarris at 11:57 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


See, that's the fundamental disconnect here. I think religious organizations should be treated like any other organization. I have no idea why I need to adhere to some unifying belief or be indistinguishable from a Church to earn special rights like believers have.

Religious belief holds a privileged position in civil rights in large part because of civilization's history of unfairly either favoring or persecuting people on that basis, combined with the nature of religious belief and organization as something deeply-held and personal and a part of a person's and a community's identity (as well as a matter of conscience). Freedom of religion is closely tied to freedom of thought, freedom of personal conviction, and freedom of association. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether, in the modern world, the protections offered religion by the First Amendment are warranted as enacted or as historically interpreted. For example, I personally don't know that there's an enormously compelling reason to make churches tax exempt (as I mentioned in my earlier comment). But, to the extent that you want atheist organizations treated the same as religion - which is what you said in your prior comment - I think such equivalent treatment should depend on there being a true equivalence. Don't you?

Everyone who ever died for freedom of religion, if they really meant it, died for freedom from religion as well.

Yes, absolutely. I wonder whether the "fundamental disconnect" you mentioned above isn't actually just a disconnect in us seeing what each other's points are.
posted by The World Famous at 11:57 AM on January 1, 2013


That "abolish the constitution" article has that same kind of creepy pod-person tang as that one dude who wanted to "repeal the first amendment"
This is not to say that we should disobey all constitutional commands. Freedom of speech and religion, equal protection of the laws and protections against governmental deprivation of life, liberty or property are important, whether or not they are in the Constitution. We should continue to follow those requirements out of respect, not obligation.
Hahaha, yeah, good luck with that
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:59 AM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Religious belief holds a privileged position in civil rights in large part because of civilization's history of unfairly either favoring or persecuting people on that basis

Yes, by promoting beliefs at the expense of other modes of thought. Treating religious organizations with due respect in no way must be in conflict with treating non-religious beliefs with equal respect. And yet we have a lawsuit now because what should be equal groups are having their ability to electioneer decided based on a religious test. This is exactly the imbalance religious freedom is meant to address, not promote.

You can talk all you want about really wanting equality but when it is couched in terms that suggest secular organizations must have unifying beliefs and otherwise be like churches you are demanding they conform to religiously based standards to earn equal treatment.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:07 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


You seem to be under the impression that I think political action organizations should be allowed to masquerade as religions and thereby be treated favorably in comparison to otherwise indistinguishable non-religious political action organizations. I assure you that I do not.
posted by The World Famous at 12:13 PM on January 1, 2013


Knowing the difference would be where the transparency would come in, wouldn't it?
posted by Artw at 12:15 PM on January 1, 2013


Indeed.
posted by The World Famous at 12:20 PM on January 1, 2013


I don't think religious content of the speech has any god damned thing to do with anything. Religious speech should not be favored or suppressed. Non-religious speech should not be favored or suppressed. There is zero reason to separate them out in any way since no free expression should be suppressed. I don't know how my position on this could possibly be confusing.

I don't care at all if a PAC is falsely religious, it makes no difference! I don't want the genuine religious organizations to have an advantage!
posted by Drinky Die at 12:20 PM on January 1, 2013


Knowing the difference would be where the transparency would come in, wouldn't it?
posted by Artw at 12:15 PM on 1/1
[+] [!]


Indeed.
posted by The World Famous at 12:20 PM on 1/1
[+] [!]


So... Yay to the churches filling in the firms like everybody else?
posted by Artw at 12:21 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Correct. As I stated in my comment above. Though, as I stated in that comment, I do have some limited concerns about it.
posted by The World Famous at 12:26 PM on January 1, 2013


Religious organizations have shared expectations about who has what degree of authority over the spending of money and how those decisions get made. Those expectations are based on religious beliefs which are, whether you like it or not, protected from government interference as long as our Constitution stands. If you don't like it, don't give your money to churches. (Or if you're religious and you don't like the idea of the Rev. Joe Smith having unfettered access to funds, join a church with stronger oversight.)

Secular organizations don't have the same expectations. They get virtually the same treatment, though. The only difference is they're accountable to the government instead of their religious rules. There are some churches where bad things happen, and the solution for that is for people to attend churches with more oversight. The thing is that lots of people happen to like churches where the pastor is In Charge. That's their choice to make as far as religious practice goes. You might not like it. I don't like it! But this is where we let people make their own decisions about religious stuff that we don't necessarily for absolutely everything. If you want to abolish all freedom of religious practice, well, go find yourself a new country to muck around with, I like the Constitution we already have.

The fraud is still illegal. Buy yourself a Rolls Royce with church money and you still owe taxes on it personally. The income is nonprofit whether or not you're a church or the FFRF. Neither sort of group should be engaging in electioneering with tax-deductible donations. The FFRF sends forms to the government. My church sends forms to the annual meeting. It's not like the vast majority of us are just spending money without any idea where it goes. It's just about who reviews the paperwork.
posted by gracedissolved at 12:28 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


if you're religious and you don't like the idea of the Rev. Joe Smith having unfettered access to funds, join a church with stronger oversight.

I'm not religious, and I want the same tax revenue from Joe regardless of any religious test applied to his belief.

Neither sort of group should be engaging in electioneering with tax-deductible donations.

But they are, if they pass the religious test, so we are having a thread!

Religious organizations have shared expectations about who has what degree of authority over the spending of money and how those decisions get made. Those expectations are based on religious beliefs which are, whether you like it or not, protected from government interference as long as our Constitution stands.

The idea that religious beliefs should be so privileged by the government over the beliefs of those who decide not to believe is in fact a question of legal and social debate, thus the thread!

IANAL, but I don't see much first amendment justification for the idea that a secular non-profit needs more oversight than the Church of Scientology. It is not an imposition to hold religion to the same standards as everyone else. It's an imposition to, negatively or positively, hold organizations to different standards based on their beliefs.

If you were to hold Churches to the same taxes as secular groups it would not be a violation of their religious beliefs. It would be a violation to tax them more than secular groups. Or, and this is key if you actually are concerned about religious freedom, to tax them less.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:46 PM on January 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure anyone here is actually disagreeing with you, Drinky Die.
posted by The World Famous at 12:51 PM on January 1, 2013


Blasdelb: "However they aren't for-profit in any remotely meaningful sense of the word"

JHarris: "How about the megachuches that have Starbucks inside them? (Yeah, I know, you can probably find some justification for that. It is funny though. HAAA HAAA HAAAaaaaaaaa)"

I'm sure that Starbucks pays nowhere near as many taxes as it should, but only because our corporate tax structure has been gutted, you know, a real problem.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:52 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure anyone here is actually disagreeing with you, Drinky Die.

Maybe not, but I'm disagreeing with them! :P
posted by Drinky Die at 12:58 PM on January 1, 2013


A lot of people don't know that the NFL is a non-profit 501(c)(6) too which is totally fucked up.
posted by futz at 1:17 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


In exchange for this tax deduction benefit, a 501(c)(3) organization agrees not to get involved in promotion of politics. The problem is that many religious organizations violate this agreement. They can't have it both ways -- allowing tax-deductions for their donors and doing politics at the same time. They need to choose one or the other.

The ACLU, which is a political entity, is a 501(c)3 and therefore not tax deductible. However, the ACLU Foundation, which is the legislative arm of the organization, is classified as a tax deductible 501(c)4*.

Couldn't religious organizations be required to have a separate, tax-deductible entity if they wanted to engage in political activity? That would mean full disclosure and bring their agenda out from behind the pulpit and allow them to be subjected to same kind of audits that other political groups are. If they decline the arrangement it would then make it easier to go after the religious entity, too.



*This is why a ticket to an annual ACLU fundraising dinner might top out at $500 but a table at the ACLU Foundation's annual fundraiser might cost upwards of $25,000.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:40 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of people don't know that the NFL is a non-profit 501(c)(6) too which is totally fucked up.

Maybe. But even for profit enterprises don't generally have to pay taxes if they don't show a profit. If the NFL has itself structured so that it doesn't show a profit, they could do the same thing if they were forced to be a for-profit enterprise.
posted by gjc at 1:44 PM on January 1, 2013


>The US government is constitutionally prohibited from taxing churches.

Not true. The first amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

You're mistaking the idea of something being constitutional and something being required by the constitution. The Supreme Court decided in the 70's that tax exempt status for churches was allowed using the rationale that notyou bolded above, that the purpose of doing so was secular and benefited religion only incidentally. The court did not say that tax exemption was mandatory.


Well... kind of. Basically, Congress is prohibited from legislating on the basis of religion. It can lump religious and secular charitable organizations together, but it can't treat them differently. The upshot of this is that if Congress wants any tax exemption, religious organizations are going to be eligible for it.

So here's the deal. If anyone can come up with a criteria other than religion which would distinguish between religious and secular charitable organizations, you can base a difference in tax treatment on that criteria. Let's see what some of those might be.

- Percentage of revenues spent on overhead? Some people complain that because most church budgets are spent mostly on staff, i.e., clergy, that they don't really count as charities. Okay, but that's what legal aid clinics do too. So no dice there.

- Percentage of revenues given to poor people? Hell, most charities don't actually give all that much money away. It's usually spent on the provision of services, i.e., staffing, or the provision of material goods, e.g., medical supplies, etc. Again, no dice.

- The provision of services to donors? Some people complain that since most donors to churches are church members, they're basically just paying a fee for services rendered and thus shouldn't be able to claim a tax deduction. Okay, but most donors to schools send their kids to said schools, so again, no dice.

- Political campaigning? This is already a criteria that's in place. But the number of religious organizations directly involved in politics in a way that offends the regulation is... basically zero, as far as I can tell. MeFites seem absolutely convinced that there's all this shadiness going on, but I'm damned if I see many concrete examples of it. There's a difference between expressing a political opinion, i.e., exercising the (other) First Amendment right of free speech, and political lobbying, involvement with political campaigns, etc. Exercising one's First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion does not and should not impair one's right to the freedom of speech. I know of no religious organizations, at all, that are actually involved in lobbying or assisting with political campaigns. I mean, seriously, the way some people around here interpret the First Amendment it would be problematic for churches to serve as polling places, something that happens in every state in the union.

So what's left? Well, religion. And you can't legislate on that basis. At all. So unless we want to do away with tax exempt status and the charitable donation tax deduction entirely, there's no way of singling out religious organizations for different taxation treatment than their secular brethren.

*I mean, really, what the hell are these things? They've got no real standing in historic ecclesiology. The Catholic Church does this one right: you want to do something, set up a religious order under the authority of the church hierarchy. Don't set up some independent bunch of yahoos to just sort of do stuff. Who asked you anyway?
posted by valkyryn at 1:54 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Couldn't religious organizations be required to have a separate, tax-deductible entity if they wanted to engage in political activity?

Like if a church encouraged its members to make non-tax-deductible donations to organizations other than the church to support a particular political cause? They already do that. See, for example, Prop 8.
posted by The World Famous at 2:08 PM on January 1, 2013


Again, the issue isn't taxation of churches. Lots of non-profit organizations get involved in politics and are not taxed, for example, Crossroads GPS or MoveOn.

You're confusing two different taxation issues with the underlying free expression issue: tax-free status of donations FOR THE DONORS is an additional benefit to the tax free status of donations for the organization, it's true. (But both are equally troubling, since not taxing real estate leads to the Catholic Church being the largest/wealthiest landowner in Manhattan.)

But that distinction only makes sense within contemporary campaign finance law between advocating public policy and advocating for the election of a candidate. As your examples indicate, there's not actually much of a difference between them, in practice: issues can be used as a substitute for partisan advocacy. And more to the point, you generally only make progress on your issues if the candidates who support them are elected. So requiring people to make broad statements of support without supporting laws and the candidates who will pass them is a violation of a Church's free expression rights.

We've created a situation where you qualify for a particular tax-advantage if you agree not to speak on matters of public concern. And that's bullshit coercion.

Imagine if I went around the country and offered people money NOT TO VOTE. That would be horrifying, wouldn't it? Well, what if we went around the country offering people money not to discuss politics? That's what we do when we offer groups like churches and non-profits a tax-advantage for not campaigning. And we do that as society, not as individuals. It's wrong.

Please understand, as an atheist, I think that religious organizations are totally wrong on the metaphysics. But that doesn't mean they don't understand justice. Sure, some churches are assholes and oppose fundamental civil rights, but lots of churches are awesome and fight hard for fundamental civil rights. The original Civil Rights movement was built around churches! Religious folks can be awesome.

Precisely because "God" doesn't exist and doesn't matter at all to our lives, belief in God shouldn't be used to compel any organization not to campaign. It doesn't matter how you dress it up: you're threatening to levy fines on people for exercising their democratic citizenship.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:20 PM on January 1, 2013


Anotherpanacea, you could really just as easily put it like this: Spending money on political campaigns is not something the tax code actually seeks to encourage. That's why it's not just tax deductible to start with. Nonprofits aren't tax-free by default--we've made them that way specifically because we want to encourage the sort of things that nonprofits, churches included, do.

So, Politician X has the support of Church A. Politician Y doesn't have the support of a major nonprofit, but is still quiet popular. Politician X's supporters can put their money into Church A, which campaigns for him. They then get a tax deduction at the end of the year, if they itemize. Politician Y's supporters have to give money to him directly, or to political groups, anyway. They have to pay taxes on all those dollars and consequently cannot afford to give as much. Effectively, Politician X has a financial advantage, even if their number of supporters is totally equal, because he's allowed to do an end-run around the tax code. This is what the rules are there to prevent. Nobody's getting punished for giving money to a campaign, they're just not getting rewarded for doing so.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:02 PM on January 1, 2013


Like if a church encouraged its members to make non-tax-deductible donations to organizations other than the church to support a particular political cause?

No, more like if a church wants to raise money for, or if you want to donate to a program to feed homeless people, that money would be tax deductible. There would then be a separate 501(c)3 entity that could do political work, whether it was direct lobbying or encouraging people to donate to Prop. 8. So you have the Church of Joe, and the Church of Joe Foundation. If a local church wanted to get involved with politics, they could create a 501(c)3, or they could direct money to a national 501(c)3. It would give churchgoers a more direct say, too.

(I realize this can't be an original idea, but it just seems there should be a way to at least separate out the political stuff.)

On preview, I think this works to avoid the situation that gracedissolved is talking about.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:06 PM on January 1, 2013


No, more like if a church wants to raise money for, or if you want to donate to a program to feed homeless people, that money would be tax deductible.

Several churches already do that, operating affiliated welfare, social services, and other charity entities separate from but affiliated with the church. Catholic Charities immediately springs to mind. It is not uncommon for churches to solicit separate donations to their affiliated charitable entities from the donations to the church itself. For example, when I pay tithing to my church, it is with the understanding that tithing goes to fund church operations, physical facilities, and that sort of thing, whereas I make separate, non-tithing contributions designated to charitable causes like my church's welfare and jobs programs, social services programs, educational programs, etc.

There would then be a separate 501(c)3 entity that could do political work, whether it was direct lobbying or encouraging people to donate to Prop. 8.

This already happens, though in the Prop 8 situation, the churches involved did not start their own political entities, but instead encouraged their members to donate to a short list of single-issue political entities that were not run by the churches. For example, when my church unfortunately asked its members to contribute time and money to support Prop 8, it did so with the express and emphatic instruction that no such contributions should be made to the church and that no such activity should take place on church property, using church telephone or address lists, or under the umbrella of any church activity or program.

But that sort of technical separation is not enough to satisfy some people (myself included).

The argument I've seen on MetaFilter and elsewhere (which I find ethically compelling but unconvincing from a legal perspective) is that churches' tax exempt status should be stripped even in cases where their members' donations are made in a non-deductible form to entities other than the church, based on the idea that encouraging members to make such donations constitutes a use of church resources (i.e. manpower, time, coercive power) for an impermissible political purpose. In other words, I think the idea is that some people think that a church becomes a political organization the moment it expresses an opinion about a policy issue in a way that its members perceive as related to or forming a part of the church's religious beliefs.

In the case of Prop 8, another argument I've seen is that the nature of the church's existence as either a religion on the one hand or a political action organization on the other should be measured not by looking at all of the activities of the church in the aggregate, all of its financial activities, all of its opinions and positions, or anything like that, but by just how much effect it actually has on policy when it asks its members to participate in the public sphere with regard to one of its tenets. If I'm following that particular argument right, it would mean that the Catholic Church, for example, ceases to be a religion and becomes a political action organization the moment it tells its members that pro-life is one of its tenets, the Mormon church becomes a political action organization the moment it tells its members that government sanction of same-sex marriage goes against the church's doctrines, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church becomes a political action organization the moment Martin Luther King, Jr. preaches about civil rights and labor unions, let alone the moment he starts marching.

One of the myriad problems with that line of argument is that it means that all that has to happen for a church to suddenly be considered a political action organization not entitled to Constitutional protection is for someone somewhere to propose a political platform or legislation that has something to do with one of the church's religious tenets. Propose a law requiring all public schoolchildren to eat pork once a week and suddenly two of the largest religions in the world have to either change their doctrines or be considered political action organizations rather than religions. That might sound like a slippery slope argument, but I would argue that we've been at the bottom of that particular slippery slope for the entire existence of the Republic. If a church's Constitutional protection hinges on that church's avoiding taking a doctrinal position on any issue contemplated in public policy, then the free exercise clause and the establishment clause are both meaningless.
posted by The World Famous at 4:43 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


(Anyway, I'm not trying to fight a straw man there, just trying to state, in good faith, the prevailing arguments I've heard and read on the subject here and elsewhere.)
posted by The World Famous at 4:44 PM on January 1, 2013


Nobody's getting punished for giving money to a campaign, they're just not getting rewarded for doing so.

They're the same thing.

We just had this debate over the ACA: "Nobody is getting punished for not buying health insurance, they're just not getting rewarded if they choose to remain uninsured." Nope: they're the same thing.

Or home-ownership: "Nobody is getting punished for renting, they're just not getting a rewarded for doing so." Sorry, no: they're the same thing.

From the perspective of the tax code, there's no difference between taxing an activity and denying a deduction for that same activity. So when you say to a church: your religious expression must avoid touching on matters of public concern or else we will tax you, you are coercing them.

Now, it seems like you're being benevolent, since you're giving them a tax break and merely threatening to take it away if they don't uphold their side of the bargain. But the bargain is rigged against them. Functionally, it's equivalent to "shut up or pay."

With ordinary 501(c)3s, that's fine. But with a church, synagogue, or mosque, there's a separate interest, and I suspect the IRS would lose that case if they were stupid enough to take it all the way to this Supreme Court after Citizens United.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:13 PM on January 1, 2013


From the perspective of the tax code, there's no difference between taxing an activity and denying a deduction for that same activity.

This statement is nonsense. There are all sorts of activities that are non-deductible. That is not the same as saying those activities are taxed. Examples: buying a car, going to a ball game, shopping for groceries, going on vacation, renting an apartment. None of these activities are tax deductible. To claim that this is the same at taxing those activities is baloney.
posted by JackFlash at 5:40 PM on January 1, 2013


Income spent on non-deductible expenditures is, in fact, taxed. That's what it means to be deductible: you're deducting it from taxable income, which is everything else.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:08 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


To claim that this is the same at taxing those activities is baloney.

To go even further - it seems to me that denying a deduction must presuppose a tax, which makes the original statement re: taxing activities and offering deductions tautologically true.

It seems more important to me to that there exists a difference between a deduction and a tax on the part of the donor - one exists regardless of activity and the other is defined exactly by a certain activity. Because of this difference, I tend to think that imposing a tax on donors for contributions to a church or "religious organization" simply because that organization is what it is, if I understand anotherpanacea correctly, because to offer an exemption otherwise is apparently complicity to governmental coercion against speech rights, assumes without reason that the activities funded by such a donation must be involved in a speech issue.

I can put 10 bucks in the tray to help people with unaffordable heating bills this winter. This is not equivalent to a political statement on inequality in living conditions of the working poor.
posted by timfinnie at 6:22 PM on January 1, 2013


assumes without reason that the activities funded by such a donation must be involved in a speech issue

Or assumes, with reason, that it involves a religious issue. Again, if Congress wants to tax donations to religious organizations, it can probably do it. But it has to tax all donations to secular organizations which are similarly situated but for their religious character in the same way.
posted by valkyryn at 6:46 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the idea is that some people think that a church becomes a political organization the moment it expresses an opinion about a policy issue in a way that its members perceive as related to or forming a part of the church's religious beliefs.

Yeah, I'd say that pretty much sums it up. And I'd view this as an impermissible restriction not only on the First Amendment right to the freedom of religion, but also on the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech. "Religious people can't express political opinions informed by their religious beliefs" is basically what the position boils down to.

Fuck that noise.
posted by valkyryn at 6:49 PM on January 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


But it doesn't say that. It says "Religious people can't express political opinions informed by their religious beliefs and still be a nonprofit."

Look, I run a nonprofit theater. I'm getting ready to do an Irish history tour of Omaha as a fundraiser. The IRS looks very closely at tours -- what I offer must hew very closely to regulations, or I will get taxed for it. Because if I behave too much like a for-profit tour organization, I compete unfairly with for-profit tour groups, in that I am doing the same thing they do, and charging money, but I have the advantages of a nonprofit status.

I couldn't just do any tour and claim, well, I'm an artist, and my rights of freedom of expression are guaranteed by the first amendment, and this tour is part of my art, so screw taxes! That's not how it works. I either stay within my mission, or I pay taxes.

The IRS doesn't have to give religious institutions nonprofit status. And if the religious institutions ignore the rules put in place by the IRS -- rules that have been identified as fair and constitutional for a long time -- it doesn't mean they are being oppressed or their rights are being stepped on. It just means they now must continue as a for-profit organization, like other people who do political advocacy for specific candidates.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:14 PM on January 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


I agree, Bunny Ultramod. I don't think anyone here would disagree with what you're saying.
posted by The World Famous at 7:38 PM on January 1, 2013


It seems valkyryn disagrees; it's him I was responding to.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:55 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm reading him differently than you are.
posted by The World Famous at 8:19 PM on January 1, 2013


Even the more conservative churches are pretty good at this sort of this, they have to be, nothing kills a church like fraud, abuse, or the other kinds of things standardized non-profit structures are designed to make more obvious

Utter nonsense. Corruption, fraud, theft, and abuse have existed in churches since there were churches. Your glasses are overly rose-colored. Certainly some churches and church officials are honest and honorable, but there is nothing about a church that requires it to be so. If you're arguing that churches are just inherently good at governing themselves, you have a lot of evidence to discredit starting with the numerous flaws of the Catholic church since its inception. It seems to have lasted.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:48 PM on January 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I'd say that pretty much sums it up. And I'd view this as an impermissible restriction not only on the First Amendment right to the freedom of religion, but also on the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech. "Religious people can't express political opinions informed by their religious beliefs" is basically what the position boils down to.

Religious idiots can blab about politics as much as they want. They just have to pay the tax bill on political speech like the rest of the country has to. Enough already.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:42 PM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's quite vague. Are you making a proposal for what you think the law should be or an explanation of what you think it currently is? And when you say "political speech" and "blab about politics", what, exactly do you mean? When you refer to "religious idiots," to whom, specifically, are you referring and in what context?
posted by The World Famous at 11:10 PM on January 1, 2013


Even the more conservative churches are pretty good at this sort of this, they have to be, nothing kills a church like fraud, abuse, or the other kinds of things standardized non-profit structures are designed to make more obvious.

This, I'm afraid, is nothing more than wishful thinking. The Roman Catholic Church is an easy target - but it is the world's largest religious body. And in addition to child abuse going on for decades, fraud is rampant (despite the RCC having "some of the most rigorous financial guidelines of any denomination"). 11% of diocese who responded to the survey (or 9 diocese out of 78) had had more than half a million dollars stolen.
posted by Francis at 1:43 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


But it doesn't say that. It says "Religious people can't express political opinions informed by their religious beliefs and still be a nonprofit." . . . like other people who do political advocacy for specific candidates.

You're saying two different things there. Not all political speech constitutes "political advocacy for specific candidates." But a lot of people, including Blazecock, act as if it does.

Again, there is a difference between simply having a political theory and endorsing or actively supporting a particular political candidate. Erasing that difference would represent a drastic restriction on the freedom of speech.
posted by valkyryn at 2:58 AM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Erasing that difference would represent a drastic restriction on the freedom of speech.

Creating that difference already was a drastic restriction on the freedom of speech.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:47 AM on January 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


(Anyway, I'm not trying to fight a straw man there, just trying to state, in good faith, the prevailing arguments I've heard and read on the subject here and elsewhere.)

Taken in good faith :) It's really why I posed it as a question, because I assumed I wasn't the first person to think of it. I also agree that leaves the larger question unanswered, but since the IRS is unlikely to choose to fight the churches in any meaningful way, like, ever, that maybe a way to make enforcement or accountability a little more palatable for the IRS couldn't hurt. I'd be thrilled to see the tax-exempt status revoked entirely but don't expect that to happen.

I know of no religious organizations, at all, that are actually involved in lobbying or assisting with political campaigns. I mean, seriously, the way some people around here interpret the First Amendment it would be problematic for churches to serve as polling places, something that happens in every state in the union.

In 2006 my polling place was a church, and I asked one of the poll workers to remove the "No on 71" bumper stickers that were pinned up on all the bulletin boards. (71 was the stem-cell research bill, and this was in one of the bluest precincts in the country.) cite - goes to my flickr stream
posted by Room 641-A at 4:27 AM on January 2, 2013


Creating that difference already was a drastic restriction on the freedom of speech.

Not a terrible point, that.
posted by valkyryn at 4:32 AM on January 2, 2013


Even the more conservative churches are pretty good at this sort of this, they have to be, nothing kills a church like fraud, abuse, or the other kinds of things standardized non-profit structures are designed to make more obvious

GOOGLE MARTIN LUTHER!
posted by jaduncan at 6:02 AM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


In the mid-1970s I attended a seminar in Denver through the 'Denver Free University' (a grassroots Open University anyone-can-teach paradigm) given by a man who had started a bona-fide, legally-constituted church of his own. In doing so, he complied with all of the IRS rules in the creation and ongoing functions of his church. As the full-time minister of his church, he was free from all income tax. The seminar he gave was to teach others how to go about creating their own churches. His church was all about conviviality and positive social experiences, it had nothing to do with any religious ideas. I moved away in the late 1970s and have no idea how the rest of his life played out. But what I learned that day was how all 'recognized' churches of any kind are free from income taxation, and everyone that works for them is free from income tax as well. SWEEEEEEEEET!
posted by Galadhwen at 6:42 AM on January 2, 2013


As the full-time minister of his church, he was free from all income tax.

What he meant is only that he hadn't been prosecuted yet.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:08 AM on January 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actually, that law has changed. Clergy do pay income tax now. Not much, obviously, and in many cases they have enough kids that their rate is actually negative. But they're subject to taxation like everyone else.
posted by valkyryn at 7:54 AM on January 2, 2013


It isn't a prohibition on your speech (or your money as speech if you believe that). It is a prohibition of using government spending as a tax deduction to promote a particular candidate or political policy. If you get a tax deduction, it isn't your money you are spending. It is the government's money or more precisely, other taxpayer's money you are spending. You don't have a right to use other people's money for your politics. Your own speech (or money) is not restricted.
posted by JackFlash at 8:19 AM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Should A Church Be Treated Differently By The IRS From Other Non-Profits?

No.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:27 AM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Actually, that law has changed. Clergy do pay income tax now. Not much, obviously, and in many cases they have enough kids that their rate is actually negative. But they're subject to taxation like everyone else.

So, a lot of takers, eh? No wonder the conservatives hate churches so much.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:28 AM on January 2, 2013


If you get a tax deduction, it isn't your money you are spending. It is the government's money or more precisely, other taxpayer's money you are spending.

So while I understand your point, please consider mine for a moment. It would be unjust for government to give a tax deduction to people who didn't vote, right? That's effectively a poll tax. So why is it okay to withhold a tax deduction from people who endorse politicians? It's a speech tax. It is effectively saying that religions ought not participate in our political system if they are truly religious, which (to a liberal) sounds good when you focus on Mormons and Baptists, but sounds bad when you think about the Black Church or Quakers. So forget about punishing your political enemies for a second and think about the principle.

We have an ostensibly secular purposes for giving churches tax exempt status, and that purpose has not historically been tied to some agreement not to participate in politics. We already subsidize the lavish facilities and treats that churches give to their members and officiants. Churches are not charities in the "help the poor" kind of way: they're charities in the same way that a museum or a school is a charity. So this need not effect the regulation of those non-profits that are not devoted to religious or anti-religious purposes.

I understand that this is the current law. The distinction is relatively new, a product of a failed attempt to prevent money from taking over politics. Churches got caught in the cross-fire. The right solution here is for the IRS to change its unconstitutional rule, not for it to enforce that rule. The rule has been enforced only twice that I know of, most recently in 1992. The Supreme Court has never agreed to hear such a case, and I don't believe it could be effectively enforced after Citizens United. I believe the Court would reason as follows: the IRS may not treat churches like any other non-profit precisely because the "free exercise" clause presents important additional considerations. There isn't an establishment clause problem so long as all other faiths (and groups specifically devoted to non-belief) are treated the same way.

As a progressive atheist who wants to see more political participation and not less, I'd rather err on the side of laxity of rules and enforcement, and let everyone get a chance to see how despicable some churches can be. It'll all shake out in the end: campaign contributions are remarkably ineffective, so churches that devote themselves to political causes contrary to their mission will soon exhaust their resources and make room for churches that actually do their jobs.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:04 AM on January 2, 2013


It'll all shake out in the end: campaign contributions are remarkably ineffective

If these contributions are ineffective, people and corps still make them — to the tune of $4.25 billion this past election, if I remember right. There's a reason the Mormon Church illegally asked its followers for cash and support, because it could then work to affect the political changes it wanted.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:56 PM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nope, $6 billion. But it was cheaper than 2008 in GDP-adjusted terms, and more than half of that was our guys, not the Republicans.

Seriously, though, money spent on elections has been shown to be tremendously inefficient: several different analyses of House races have shown that there is less than 1% effect on the vote per $100,000 spent. That's at the House district level: it's worse at the state and national level. (Here’s one from Stephen Levitt.) Rove wasted $400 million and lost almost every race he invested in. Why do you think he freaked out?
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:12 PM on January 2, 2013


I feel slightly evil for thinking this, because I know how chaotic it would be, but consider this as a thought experiment:

The IRS starts doubling your deduction if you donate to a 501c3, and you later report it to be "electioneering". They investigate, and if you're proven correct, you get a deduction double the amount you donated. If not, you get to deduct the amount you donated.

Chaos in the streets, I know, but I'd love to see something like this put in place, because it keeps the IRS out of the middle. "Hey, we got a donor report, we have to investigate!" Plus, it opens all NGO's up to "sniper donors". The law-abiding, non-political NGO's could occasionally get windfalls from rich people hoping to avoid their taxes. Who the law-abiding NGO's are would be clear after a few years under a system like this. It would disembowel stealth PACs and the like. I also have zero idea how something like this would stand up to constitutional challenges, but damn that'd be a fun fight to watch.
posted by saysthis at 2:21 PM on January 2, 2013


There's a reason the Mormon Church illegally asked its followers for cash and support, because it could then work to affect the political changes it wanted.

That's an excellent point. On specific political issues and legislative measures, a church can exert significant political force if its membership is cohesive enough to constitute a mobilized voting and influencing block.

It's also interesting that the Mormon Church did not ask its followers for cash and support to be given to the church, but for them to give non-deductible contributions to issue-specific, non-exempt political entities. I realize, Blazecock Pileon (based on prior discussions you and I have had on the subject) that it is your legal opinion that there is or should be no legal distinction between a church spending money on a political cause on the one hand and a church asking its members to make non-deductible contributions in support of a cause on the other hand. And I assume, based on your characterization of the Mormon Church's involvement in Prop 8 here as "illegal" that you believe that such action not only should be illegal but that it is, in fact, illegal under current law. I'm not going to argue with you about that, mostly because I share your distaste for the Mormon Church's involvement in that particular issue and in politics generally.

But I do wonder whether you think there is any line at all to be drawn between permissible commentary or involvement by a church in a policy matter and what you characterize as "illegal." Setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not churches should ever be tax exempt in the first place, let's say, hypothetically, that the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would require all children attending public schools to eat at least one serving of pork per week. Do you think it would be or should be illegal for Jewish and Muslim churches to ask their members to oppose the bill? What if the churches' leaders made such a plea outside their official capacity as church leaders and through a non-tax-exempt political entity organized separate from the church itself?
posted by The World Famous at 3:14 PM on January 2, 2013


But I do wonder whether you think there is any line at all to be drawn between permissible commentary or involvement by a church in a policy matter and what you characterize as "illegal." Setting aside for the moment the question of whether or not churches should ever be tax exempt in the first place, let's say, hypothetically, that the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would require all children attending public schools to eat at least one serving of pork per week. Do you think it would be or should be illegal for Jewish and Muslim churches to ask their members to oppose the bill? What if the churches' leaders made such a plea outside their official capacity as church leaders and through a non-tax-exempt political entity organized separate from the church itself?

I can tell you that I belong to a synagogue where clergy do not make any political requests of their congregation other than that they should "support, pray for and visit Israel." There is a synagogue-sponsored trip to Israel every year, usually attended by retirees.

However, that does not stop non-clergy members of the synagogue from asking members to write to their politicians regarding X-issue privately. Nor does it stop them from standing up at special event breakfasts (lunches or dinners) that are not being convened for religious reasons and speaking about political issues.

I think that's the way it should be. Clergy should not be lobbying from the altar.
posted by zarq at 3:30 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree, zarq. I don't want people talking politics from the pulpit in my church, either. But do I think it should be illegal for a church or its leaders to publicly state opinions on matters that are the subject of policy? No, I think that's going way too far.
posted by The World Famous at 3:51 PM on January 2, 2013


Clergy should not be lobbying from the altar.

This happens to be a theological point about which there is profound disagreement both within Judaism and all the other major religions. I tend to think that clergy have an obligation to vehemently fight for a fairer and more just society. So we disagree on an important theological issue, which happens a lot in religious communities and in life.

Now, I guess it's nice for you that your theological preferences have been established by the US government as a matter of public policy, but what is the government doing adjudicating our theological disputes?
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:53 PM on January 2, 2013


The World Famous: But do I think it should be illegal for a church or its leaders to publicly state opinions on matters that are the subject of policy? No, I think that's going way too far.

My concern would probably depend on a given context. Clergy generally have a certain amount of influence over their congregations, and that doesn't just disappear when they walk away from the pulpit. Who a member of the clergy is speaking to, what they are saying and where they are saying it is worth considering.

Are they stating a personal opinion, or does it have the power of their religious office behind it? Is that separable?

For example, if my rabbi were to speak ex cathedra at a gathering of members of his congregation (or as their representative to others,) urging a vote for a particular candidate, then that could arguably be as bad as if he had done so from the bimah.

Another example: If a Catholic Cardinal were to announce on television that the Church views abortion is an abomination and as a result, Catholics who want to remain members of the Church should never vote for a pro-choice candidate, I'd consider that an attempt to inappropriately use the power of his position to influence politics.

anotherpanacea: This happens to be a theological point about which there is profound disagreement both within Judaism and all the other major religions. I tend to think that clergy have an obligation to vehemently fight for a fairer and more just society. So we disagree on an important theological issue, which happens a lot in religious communities and in life.

Yet this isn't solely a theological issue. Religions differ in their definition of what makes a "fairer and more just society." They differ in their perspective of what issues and topics should and should not be valued. Catholicism is very invested in the pro-life movement right now. But in contrast, Judaism does not generally focus on the abortion question, for example, because the majority of Jews are taught to varying degrees that: (a) in any situation where an abortion might become medically necessary, the life of the mother (an actual life) is automatically to be protected over that of the fetus (a potential life) and (b) life begins not at conception, but at birth.

Ultimately, this is a question of whether one or more religious groups should be given the ability to impose their beliefs and values on others who do not believe as they do, through secular legislation. For some Christians, Dominionism.
posted by zarq at 6:56 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rove wasted $400 million and lost almost every race he invested in.

Sure, but no one who gave him money thought that it was a bad bet, and he certainly had his share of successes that motivated contributions down the road. And whether it is 4.25 or 6 billion — come on, that's a lot of money to throw at something you argue has little effect on the electorate. Maybe it really is just monopoly money to these folks, but I doubt the rich don't care where their campaign contributions go or what effect they have. I'm sure they see giving money to a political party on that scale as something much like any of their other investments (ones that carry a certain amount of risk of failure) which deliver some quantifiable, predicted return, like influence on upcoming legislation, etc.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:43 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


But do I think it should be illegal for a church or its leaders to publicly state opinions on matters that are the subject of policy?

There is a huge, wide, substantive difference between stating opinion on legislation and mobilizing your mob to do your bidding and use its financial and other resources to work to impact the outcome of legislation on the basis of what you decide your opinion to be.

You know this is different, and you know what your church did — the public stuff is documented for all to see, and the slush funding is also public knowledge despite your church's best efforts — so stop trying to blur the lines like this is some kind of free speech matter, when you're smart enough to know for a fact that it is nothing of the sort.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:49 PM on January 2, 2013


It should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to TWF's comments in this thread, which include him saying he personally opposed the LDS Church's campaign to uphold Proposition 8, that he's not being an apologist for them.
posted by zarq at 8:25 PM on January 2, 2013


Yet this isn't solely a theological issue. Religions differ in their definition of what makes a "fairer and more just society." They differ in their perspective of what issues and topics should and should not be valued.

Churches differ in their definition of what makes a fairer and more just society because people differ in their definitions. We're trying to squelch political pluralism, and it's frightening, because pluralism is the foundation of liberal politics.

You're advocating political quietism, zarq. Remember: I'M SAYING THIS AS AN ATHEIST. There's no way to keep the Latter Day Saints out of California politics that doesn't also keep the Southern Christian Leadership Conference out of Alabama politics. That should be a deal-breaker for anyone, believer or no.

Of course most citizens are wrong on the metaphysics of their beliefs in justice, just as most citizens are wrong about many of the details of what justice really requires of us, but that doesn't matter: we live in a democracy, and you don't have to be right on the metaphysics to vote. We don't get to vote on everything, because people have rights, and we shouldn't vote on things like gay marriage because it's a right: but if something is a voteable issue, religious people shouldn't be disadvantaged just because they do their politics on Sunday at church or Friday night at temple, while I do mine at university (which also enjoys a tax advantage.) There's no theological literacy test at the polls, and there shouldn't be a theological gag order on politics.

You simply cannot have a working democracy where the majority of citizens who think about justice as something deeply connected to God and faith are not allowed to express their beliefs about justice because of those foundations. We don't have to agree with them! We certainly don't have to avoid making fun of their absurd beliefs! But it's wrong to try to silence them.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:24 PM on January 2, 2013


And whether it is 4.25 or 6 billion — come on, that's a lot of money to throw at something you argue has little effect on the electorate.

It's roughly what we spend on Halloween candy. If your number is right, we spend more on candy.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:40 PM on January 2, 2013


Churches differ in their definition of what makes a fairer and more just society because people differ in their definitions.

No, Churches differ in their definitions because the religious ideologies they are pushing dictate and prioritize specific values, which often run counter to the public opinion of the majority population. But since the Churches concentrate their lobbying power and use fear and other dishonorable, emotionally-manipulative tactics to sway public opinion, they are able to effect change.

As we saw in California recently, the Utah-based LDS Church convinced their congregations to spend so much money and effort lobbying for a specific Proposition, they helped alter a vote in a state where the Mormon population is about 2%! A massive victory for a bunch of intolerant bigots, most of whom don't live in California and wouldn't have been affected by a defeat of Proposition 8.

But it's wrong to try to silence them.

I'm not advocating political quietism. Nor am I trying to squelch pluralism. Quite the opposite. We have seen the effects of political activism by organized religion in this country many times. It silences and suppresses minority views, preventing open discourse of pluralistic views.

We have seen that when religious groups gain the ability to legislatively impose their beliefs on the rest of the country, they usually force large groups of Americans into second class citizen status. They typically advocate a reduction of the peoples' right to bodily integrity, personal and sexual autonomy, self-determination, social autonomy, freedom in various forms, and/or other civil rights, including the right of the people to freely practice their own faiths (or not) as they see fit, free from persecution. Religion-based legislation is likely to take the form of draconian health care restrictions which target women and restrict their health care options. Religion-based health care policies have made shaming and emotional manipulation of women mandatory in some states, in order to discourage them from making decisions about their own bodies.

And of course, there's the religious right's attempt at a coup de grâce in education: Religious groups in this country have been trying for decades to force schools to teach their mythologies as scientific fact. To children who may not even share that specific ideology. Worse, those religious teachings deliberately deprecate scientific discoveries, principles and methods, perpetuating a terribly destructive devaluing of education and expertise.

Despite the fact that many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians wrongheadedly seem to think this is a "Christian Nation" whose laws, values and ideals solely reflect their ideology, the United States is simply not a theocracy.

We counter their concentrated influence by leveling the playing field: creating a financial disincentive to religious political lobbying. This helps preserve democratic principles. It doesn't attack them.
posted by zarq at 10:35 PM on January 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can tell you that I belong to a synagogue where clergy do not make any political requests of their congregation other than that they should "support, pray for and visit Israel." There is a synagogue-sponsored trip to Israel every year, usually attended by retirees.

What did the Dominionist say to the Zionist?

"I'm from the US government, and I'm here to help!"

American Jewish support for Israel is a key component of our foreign policy and of Israel's national security strategy. It's absurd to think that your congregation will read this as a vacation recommendation and not as a dog whistle about which candidates to vote for and which lobbying groups to support. Perhaps they'll support J Street rather than AIPAC, but this request won't be any less political.

I support your synagogue's right to support Israel and pro-Israeli politicians without losing your tax exemption. Do you?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:59 AM on January 3, 2013


American Jewish support for Israel is a key component of our foreign policy and of Israel's national security strategy. It's absurd to think that your congregation will read this as a vacation recommendation and not as a dog whistle about which candidates to vote for and which lobbying groups to support. Perhaps they'll support J Street rather than AIPAC, but this request won't be any less political.

Not exactly. Support for a Jewish homeland is an inherent (and at this point, possibly inseparable) part of American religious Judaism, (across nearly every sect) and has been for at least a century. We say, "Next year in Jerusalem" at the end of our Passover seders. Prayers are printed in our prayer books to commemorate both victims of the Holocaust and for those who died so Israel could be founded and protected. Etc. Israel is now seen by many Jews as a protection against another genocide.

But support for Israel can take many forms. For example, donations to American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) or Meir Panim are certainly not equivalent to a donation to AIPAC or J Street. One can support Israel and Israeli charities in many ways without interfering in the American political process.

I don't believe clergy should be urging their congregations to vote for one candidate or another.

I support your synagogue's right to support Israel and pro-Israeli politicians without losing your tax exemption. Do you?

In general, I don't believe religious institutions should be allowed a tax exemption.
posted by zarq at 8:16 AM on January 3, 2013


In general, I don't believe religious institutions should be allowed a tax exemption.

I am behind this proposal. But it's not going to happen any time soon in the US, so we should at least make sure that the way that taxes and churches interact is not restricting religious citizens' exercise of citizenship. Martin Luther King was not a Dominionist.

One can support Israel and Israeli charities in many ways without interfering in the American political process.

While I agree, you could say the same thing about opposing racial segregation or abortion or poverty. Just because it's possible to channel one's desire for justice in some particular direction doesn't mean it's obligatory or that depoliticized support or opposition is the best way to achieve your goals. You're suggesting that in the matter of their deepest commitments, religious citizens ought to be relegated to purely private efforts.

I don't believe clergy should be urging their congregations to vote for one candidate or another.

Right: this is ultimately a matter of faith and theology for you, not an argument about tax law or the 1st Amendment. Even if they paid taxes, you'd still want your clergy to remain silent on political issues. That's fine! But my claim is that the tax code shouldn't discriminate between quietists and activists.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:52 AM on January 3, 2013


It should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to TWF's comments in this thread, which include him saying he personally opposed the LDS Church's campaign to uphold Proposition 8, that he's not being an apologist for them.

But not so opposed that he wants to take away their ability to do it. There's a difference between opposing a particular initiative based on the merits and the general ability to undertake such initiatives, no?

I'm sort of lost in all the tax code law and not an expert to begin with, but my overriding impression is that if I contribute to a lobbying group, I cannot deduct that contribution. If I contribute to a church and it uses the money to lobby for a political position, my contribution ought not be tax deductible. Perhaps churches should be required to set up separate accounting and donation mechanisms for political activism, whether the LDS or SCLC. I say this not knowing whether this comports with current law or not.

And if a preacher from the pulpit advocates directly for a politician or a political cause, then all funding that goes to supporting the church services and that minister's salary needs to come under that lobbying funding mechanism.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:54 AM on January 3, 2013


I'm just a simple caveman, but it seems to me that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" is pretty clear. Beyond this statement in the constitution, no distinction can be made in law between organizations based on its affiliation (or non-affiliation) with a religious organization. I leave it to the non-cavemen to say how that would change current practices.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:59 AM on January 3, 2013


There is a huge, wide, substantive difference between stating opinion on legislation and mobilizing your mob to do your bidding and use its financial and other resources to work to impact the outcome of legislation on the basis of what you decide your opinion to be.

I agree 100% That's why I asked you directly where you think the line is.

You know this is different, and you know what your church did — the public stuff is documented for all to see, and the slush funding is also public knowledge despite your church's best efforts — so stop trying to blur the lines like this is some kind of free speech matter, when you're smart enough to know for a fact that it is nothing of the sort.

I asked you point blank where you think the line should be drawn. I'm not trying to blur the lines. I'm trying to discuss where the bright line is or should be. You don't seem to be reading what I'm writing. I agree with you.

But not so opposed that he wants to take away their ability to do it.

Where do you get that from what I've written here? I said very clearly above that I generally have no problem with the notion of churches being taxed. I think you're assuming that I hold an opinion that I have not stated and that I do not hold.

I'm sort of lost in all the tax code law and not an expert to begin with, but my overriding impression is that if I contribute to a lobbying group, I cannot deduct that contribution. If I contribute to a church and it uses the money to lobby for a political position, my contribution ought not be tax deductible.

That is correct. And that is why the LDS church expressly asked its members to make non-deductible donations to political organizations, and instructed people not to make any such donations to the church. As I stated above, there is an argument to be made that the church was nevertheless using tax-deductible church contributions for an impermissible political purpose by using manpower and influence to ask its members to make those non-deductible contributions to other organizations. I addressed that in detail above. I went to the trouble to point out above that I did not intend to fight a straw man, but was trying to fairly state the position that I'd seen others take. Blazecock Pileon and zarq have now both taken that very position, so I think it's safe to say that it is not a straw man (I hope, anyway).

I cannot fully describe how frustrating it is to see Blazecock Pileon, Mental Wimp, and others insisting over and over again that I hold opinions or take positions that are exactly the opposite of what I actually think and say. Seriously, WTF?
posted by The World Famous at 9:58 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Folks, as per usual if you need to have a one-on-one conversation with TWF about his beliefs, take it up with him.]
posted by jessamyn at 10:04 AM on January 3, 2013


My bad, TWF. I totally misunderstood your position.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:54 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks, Mental Wimp.
posted by The World Famous at 11:17 AM on January 3, 2013


You're suggesting that in the matter of their deepest commitments, religious citizens ought to be relegated to purely private efforts.

No. I'm saying that I think Churches and clergy shouldn't be allowed to push a political agenda in their religion's name by demanding that (or threatening) their congregations vote a particular way or donate money for political activism.

Right: this is ultimately a matter of faith and theology for you

I view this more as as a separation of church and state issue, not as dueling theologies. So it's a matter of faith and theology only to the degree that I would like to prevent religious institutions from forcing their beliefs on the rest of us in the public sphere who do not believe as they do.

Even if they paid taxes, you'd still want your clergy to remain silent on political issues.

To repeat:
My concern would probably depend on a given context. Clergy generally have a certain amount of influence over their congregations, and that doesn't just disappear when they walk away from the pulpit. Who a member of the clergy is speaking to, what they are saying and where they are saying it is worth considering.

Are they stating a personal opinion, or does it have the power of their religious office behind it? Is that separable?
IOW, it's more complicated than "I want them to remain silent on political issues."

I think there's a double standard that I would like to see eliminated. I do not want them to preach politics from the altars of their Churches / Synagogues and Mosques, and simultaneously get a tax break from the government.
posted by zarq at 11:20 AM on January 3, 2013


I'm trying to discuss where the bright line is or should be.

I think the bright line is when someone is acting in an official capacity for an organization that accepts tax-supported contributions, regardless of its religious affiliation or non-affiliation, she has to scrupulously avoid lobbying for a political cause or candidate or soliciting funds for such activity. Full stop. As private citizens, all and any members of the organization are permitted to engage in such activity, of course. However, if at any point such activity is engaged in by members acting in their capacity as members, the organization is responsible for reimbursing the government for all tax revenues illegally obtained during that year and any time afterwards, and criminal penalties may apply as well.

If such an organization has an arm intended for lobbying purposes, that arm must organize as required by law without regard to presence or absence of any religious affiliation. Full stop. All existing criminal and civil penalties apply.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:04 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree with that, Mental Wimp. But I wonder what should be considered to constitute "lobbying for a political cause."

For illustrative purposes, I'll use same-sex marriage as the example in this comment just because it seems to work well and is not hypothetical, but I would ask that you and others consider the question as it applies to all other issues, with same-sex marriage only being used as an example. For example, setting aside analysis under current laws, I can agree that the Mormon church's asking its members to contribute money and time to support Prop 8 - even though it told them emphatically not to make any such contributions to the church itself - was wrong and should not be done. I can also agree that it would be equally wrong for a church to make that same plea of its members with reference only to the issue of same-sex marriage, and not in connection with any specific ballot measure or candidate.

But let's move now down the spectrum of possibilities, keeping in mind that I'm taking no position on any of these at the moment, but just asking where the line should be drawn:

- What about a church merely taking a doctrinal position on whether same-sex marriage should be legally recognized? Can a church have a doctrinal position about policy matters, or must it refrain from holding or vocalizing any such beliefs?

- What if a church says nothing about the legal status of same-sex marriage, but does formally call same-sex marriage an "abomination" or something to that effect? Can a church have a non-public-policy doctrinal position on subjects that are subject to political action, even if the church's voicing such a doctrinal position will foreseeably have the effect of encouraging its members to vote one way or the other on the matter?

- What if a church formally takes the position that same-sex marriage is immoral in the eyes of God? What if a church formally takes the opposite position - i.e. that same-sex marriage is moral and righteous in the eyes of God?

- What if a church takes a doctrinal position on a policy matter that is currently undisputed but that becomes a controverted political issue in the future? Does it matter whether the matter on which the church comments is a current controversy? For example, should it be illegal for a church to have advocated against same-sex marriage in the 1950s?

- In 1943, Ezra Taft Benson became a member of the Mormon Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In 1953, he was appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture by President Eisenhower and served simultaneously as an Apostle and in Eisenhower's cabinet for the full eight years of Ike's presidency. Should it have been illegal for him to do so? What if he had stepped down from his church position? Would it not have held the same influence with church members? He also publicly disagreed with some of Ike's more high-profile policy initiatives that he nevertheless enforced and advanced as Secretary of Agriculture. Should it have been illegal for him to voice his disagreement with Ike?

- After Eisenhower left office, Benson remained an outspoken political conservative and opponent of communism and socialism. He also remained an Apostle. Should that have been illegal?

- During that same time period, James E. Faust was a Mormon Stake President and was elected President of the Utah State Bar. In 1962, he was appointed by John F. Kennedy to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Should that have been illegal? If not, does the fact that Faust became an LDS Apostle in 1978 change the analysis? How about the fact that, while Benson was talking about the evils of communism and socialism in the 1970s, Faust was an outspoken Democrat and self-described liberal, active in causes consistent with that political worldview?

- What if a group of Mormons in 2013 form a non-tax-exempt political action organization and solicit non-deductible donations from other Mormons by relying entirely on things that Ezra Taft Benson said in the 1970s? Should the Mormon Church's current legal status be affected by members acting on what long-dead church leaders said?

- If the answer to the last question was "yes," should the Roman Catholic Church's legal status be affected if a group of Catholics form a PAC soliciting donations based entirely on the writings of Augustine? Lutherans forming a PAC based on the writings of Martin Luther? Baptists forming a PAC based on the words of MLK?

- Finally, how do you view Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech? Setting aside the question of whether his church should have lost tax-exempt status, do you think that speech was immoral or unethical given his position as a religious leader?

Clearly, a line must be drawn somewhere. As Blazecock Pileon pointed out (and I agree with him wholeheartedly), "[t]here is a huge, wide, substantive difference between stating opinion on legislation and mobilizing your mob to do your bidding and use its financial and other resources to work to impact the outcome of legislation on the basis of what you decide your opinion to be." So where's the line?
posted by The World Famous at 1:00 PM on January 3, 2013


Just a couple more:

- Given that Mitt Romney served as a local leader in the Mormon Church prior to his candidacy for President, should it have been illegal for him to run for President? Should the Church have lost its tax-exempt status the moment one of its former leaders ran for public office? What about with Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch, Bob Bennett, and all the other Mormon holders of public office? Because of the Church's lay leadership system, all of them have held one church leadership position or another during their life, and many have done so while they held office. Orrin Hatch, for example, was the Gospel Doctrine teacher in his ward for a time while in office. Should the church have lost its tax-exempt status for calling Hatch as a Gospel Doctrine teacher?
posted by The World Famous at 1:06 PM on January 3, 2013


(Anyway, I'm not expecting or really asking anyone to answer all those questions, but just trying to illustrate that there really are a lot of different scenarios all along the continuum and that drawing a line might be a bit tricky.)
posted by The World Famous at 3:52 PM on January 3, 2013


- Finally, how do you view Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech? Setting aside the question of whether his church should have lost tax-exempt status, do you think that speech was immoral or unethical given his position as a religious leader?

You have got to be kidding.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:30 AM on January 4, 2013


Kidding about what?
posted by The World Famous at 10:36 AM on January 4, 2013


Sorry, I'm not trying to be coy, Blazecock Pileon. You seem to think my questions about MLK's speech as political speech by a religious leader are ridiculous. But it is not at all clear to me whether you think they're ridiculous because of course the speech is not problematic or because of course it is problematic. Which is it, in your opinion? As I said above, a line must be drawn somewhere. Of all the people here, you seem to take the most severe position as to how restrictively that line should be drawn. Admittedly, you most often seem to take that severe position as to a single political issue. But I assume that you take that position as to all political or policy advocacy by religious leaders, and not just as to the issue of same-sex marriage.

Can you explain why you reacted that way to my questions about MLK's speech?

Would your reaction be the same if my question were about a hypothetical speech given that same day, under the same circumstances, by a leader of some other church, but taking the opposite political position? In other words, do you think it matters what the political position is that is being taken?
posted by The World Famous at 11:12 AM on January 4, 2013


I agree with that, Mental Wimp. But I wonder what should be considered to constitute "lobbying for a political cause."

Simple. Same definition we use for non-religious organizations. It's not a problem specific to this issue. There has to be some standard in law, just don't apply it differently between religious and non-religious affiliates.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:51 PM on January 4, 2013


You have to be kidding, because MLK's speech was not about one organized religion contributing to political campaigns, or doing political ads, or running slush funds to do the aforementioned.

It was just a speech, and people who listened to it either acted on their own, or they didn't. Most of the US didn't, as it happened, and social change only happened because SCOTUS ruled on several critical civil rights cases, the outcomes of which may have been inspired by his speech but were not a result of active, cash-based courting by King's social movement.

I'm not going to bother with addressing the rest of your hypotheticals, which are interesting but have no basis in reality and what people are concerned about when this subject gets discussed.

You want to draw a hard line, go for it. The real issue is a set of bad actors in organized religion who are already crossing the line into political advocacy, parasites who are using taxpayer subsidies to do so, right here and right now. Hypothetical cases are fascinating, but wholly irrelevant.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:52 PM on January 4, 2013


You want to draw a hard line, go for it. The real issue is a set of bad actors in organized religion who are already crossing the line into political advocacy, parasites who are using taxpayer subsidies to do so, right here and right now. Hypothetical cases are fascinating, but wholly irrelevant.

They're not, though. They're quite relevant.

If we want to establish legislation barring religious organizations from acting in bad faith to influence politics, then we must define parameters under which they are not allowed to operate. You can't just say, "You're not allowed to interfere in the political process" without defining how, because then the very situations TWF is raising become legal gray areas which will be abused. Drawing a hard line is how good, enforceable laws work. Otherwise, why bother in the first place?
posted by zarq at 1:05 PM on January 4, 2013


Thanks for the clarification, Blazecock Pileon. So you would draw the line such that open advocacy of a political cause from the pulpit in a pastor's official capacity as such would not constitute illegal, unethical, or othewise "bad" conduct, but monetary contributions, ads by the religion itself, and slush funds would?

That surprises me, to be honest. I had assumed that your objections to the Mormon church's opposition to legal recognition of same-sex marriage were stronger than mine, but it looks like it's the other way around. I think the Mormon church's open support of Prop 8 was over the line, even if it hadn't spent any money or manpower on it. But you appear to be saying that the President of the Church giving a speech asking members to support Prop 8 would be fine, but spending Church money or manpower on the cause would not. Is that right?

I don't mind if you don't address the rest of the scenarios I mentioned. But I would point out that most of them are factual, and not hypothetical. When you say they have no basis in reality, I don't quite understand, since most of them are direct, accurate historic examples that name the actual individuals and organizations involved. Ezra Taft Benson actually was an outspoken ultra-conservative who served simultaneously as an Apostle and as Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture for eight years and then continued to tour the country giving ultra-conservative political speeches during the rest of his tenure as an Apostle. The other specific scenarios are also factual.

You want to draw a hard line, go for it. The real issue is a set of bad actors in organized religion who are already crossing the line into political advocacy, parasites who are using taxpayer subsidies to do so, right here and right now. Hypothetical cases are fascinating, but wholly irrelevant.

But most of what I asked about were actual historic cases, not hypotheticals. Should we no longer be concerned about the Mormon church's involvement with Prop 8, since that was more than 8 years ago? If so, what do you think the statute of limitations should be on that sort of thing? Long enough to include the President of the Mormon church openly opposing the repeal of Prohibition in 1933?
posted by The World Famous at 1:11 PM on January 4, 2013


open advocacy of a political cause from the pulpit in a pastor's official capacity

I don't see it.

King gave the speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, not in a church. It was made to civil rights supporters, not a religious congregation. It was not a religious call-to-arms in the name of the SCLC, G-d and Jesus, but a plea for equal rights against hatred, slavery and bigotry.
posted by zarq at 1:18 PM on January 4, 2013


What about King's speeches and sermons given in the Ebenezer Baptist Church that included political commentary and calls to arms? Over the line?
posted by The World Famous at 1:24 PM on January 4, 2013


You want a hard line, make one. I prefer to be concerned with the flagrant violations that the IRS is deliberately ignoring. I just won't get drawn into a back-and-forth over hypotheticals that do not matter.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:32 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think it necessarily needs to be a hard line. But there does need to be a line. You accused me of trying to "blur the lines," after all.

I prefer to be concerned with the flagrant violations that the IRS is deliberately ignoring.

Care to give some examples, then? I've asked about some very specific things, including specifics about the Mormon church's actions with regard to same-sex marriage, but you seem to think they're hypotheticals.

I just won't get drawn into a back-and-forth over hypotheticals that do not matter.

That's fine. No hypotheticals. How about MLK's "But If Not" speech? That's not a hypothetical.
posted by The World Famous at 1:51 PM on January 4, 2013


You accused me of trying to "blur the lines," after all.

That is about something else entirely. You were trying to make a free speech issue out of what this issue is about, when running a slush fund (for example) is not free speech. You play these word games every single time, and it is why I keep having to go back to ignoring you. You have an agenda and you don't play fair.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:21 PM on January 4, 2013


Apparently, donations to the SCLC were taxable anyway, so it's not even a hypothetical even marginally relevant to this issue and tax-exempt organizations.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:29 PM on January 4, 2013


Setting aside the question of tax-deductability and taxation of churches (taxing the churches would be perfectly fine with me), where do you think the moral and/or ethical line is?
posted by The World Famous at 2:32 PM on January 4, 2013


The World Famous: I, for one, very much enjoyed your cascading set of case studies. Not at all word play. It's clear this is really important to you.

Could you say why you personally think that "the Mormon church's open support of Prop 8 was over the line, even if it hadn't spent any money or manpower on it"?

I mean, I oppose their opposition to same-sex marriage, and I think their many for-profit holdings should already lose them their tax-exempt status, but I don't oppose their right to oppose it. I like that it's now a matter of public record just where the Mormon church stands: it undermines their 2011 campaign to seem mainstream. When Prop 8 is overturned, SCOTUS will be saying, in part, that the LDS supported something so atrociously retrograde it couldn't even get by this notoriously conservative court!
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:33 PM on January 4, 2013


I don't think it was necessarily over the line legally. But I object to it on moral grounds because I have a problem with my church (and others) meddling in public policy on express terms like that. I think there are certain general areas of human endeavor and governance where a church does not cross a moral line by voicing an opinion on public policy - for example, slavery, free exercise of religion, broad areas of political philosophy, and certainly others. I think that if same-sex marriage law would have directly affected how the church could practice its religious beliefs, that would have made a difference, even if I don't necessarily agree with that particular aspect of the official belief system. As it was, the only actual effect on the church that I have been able to identify has to do with the operation of the church's various social services entities, and those are separate from the church itself anyway.

In addition to disagreeing with the LDS church's position on the legality of same-sex marriage, I just don't like the idea of a church telling its members how to vote - whether it does so expressly, through monetary means, or in any other way. Does that make sense?
posted by The World Famous at 2:52 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


How about MLK's "But If Not" speech?

The SCLC was not a tax-exempt organization until 1965, after SCOTUS rulings, when it was renamed the American Foundation on Nonviolence. If you can explain why the IRS would need to go after the SCLC for King's speeches — even ignoring the fact the SCLC was not, to my knowledge, making donations to politicians, running political advocacy ads, or setting up slush funds to fund the defense of civil rights laws — when that organization was not tax-exempt; if you can explain the relevancy of the SCLC to this discussion, then I will be happy to look at this question as anything other than the kind of weird bait that usually comes out of FOX News/Glenn Beck/et al. claiming MLK was an arch-conservative against labor rights, abortion, taxation, affirmative action, etc.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:54 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Right, but I'm not asking about tax exemption or legalities. I'm asking about moral, ethical lines - not as to the subject matter of the speech (which I agree with), but as to the fact that he was a pastor giving a sermon in church in his official capacity as such and was giving an overtly political sermon that was a political call to arms.

Perhaps it matters whether or not the political position a church is taking is one that we agree is the correct one. But what if MLK's "But If Not" speech were taking the wrong side in that political fight? Would that matter?
posted by The World Famous at 4:00 PM on January 4, 2013


but I'm not asking about tax exemption or legalities

Then you are dealing in hypotheticals which have nothing to do with the subject of this thread, and as I have tried to make plainly clear, I am just not interested in going down that rabbit hole with you.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:21 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why are you unwilling to give any examples of what you think constitute flagrant violations that the IRS is ignoring and examples of what you think do not constitute violations?
posted by The World Famous at 4:28 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Guys, take the back-and-forth elsewhere. Thanks ]
posted by restless_nomad at 4:32 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


What about King's speeches and sermons given in the Ebenezer Baptist Church that included political commentary and calls to arms? Over the line?

For me, yes. But I suppose that's consistent with what I said upthread.
posted by zarq at 7:00 PM on January 4, 2013


I just don't like the idea of a church telling its members how to vote - whether it does so expressly, through monetary means, or in any other way. Does that make sense?

It does, but in another non-hypothetical example, I can say that black churches in Maryland were heavily organizing for Obama's election and re-election. Even when there is criticism (and there's a lot!) it was all in terms of re-electing the first black president. Black churches just don't separate theology and politics the way some people suggest they ought to do.

In the context of race and religion (and we are never more segregated than when we pray) I just think we ought to be taking a lesson from that fact. It doesn't bother me that the local churches do that so I wonder how much my opposition to the Mormons was just that I disagreed with them particularly vehemently.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:26 PM on January 4, 2013


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