Another threat to the separation of church and state?
August 28, 2002 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Another threat to the separation of church and state? "[S]ome members of Congress want to turn churches into political action committees. A bill in Congress would amend the tax code to allow churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship to get involved in partisan political campaigns."
posted by Bootcut (41 comments total)
As long as we can tax the churches on donations received and made.
posted by mkelley at 1:02 PM on August 28, 2002

My church steers pretty clear of that stuff... and I'm of the opinion that it's a pretty dangerous road to tread. That said, it would be nice for religious institutions to be given a little more lee-way, as current regulations seem to be a little on the zealous side.

mkelley: my understanding is that PACs don't currently pay taxes. And if they do, that's another reason to keep out of politics wholesale.
posted by silusGROK at 1:04 PM on August 28, 2002

My opinion is that if you want a say in the political process, pay taxes; that would be a pretty sweet deal for the churches otherwise. You know that some sharp operators would set up churches just for the purpose of funneling money to the politicians of their choice.

And wouldn't this end up allowing people to do an end run around contribution limits? Sure, I gave the maximum to [some party], but I also gave $50,000 to the Church of [Some Party]...
posted by alex_reno at 1:20 PM on August 28, 2002

mkelley: as George Carlin said, "we could pay off the national debt if all we did was tax the Catholic Church on its real estate holdings."

In light of what Vis10n said: The majority of churches that will actually want to zealously take advantage of this bill are just those- zealots. And in my opinion, it's a fair bet that the majority of religious zealotry in this nation is a type that leans to the conservative right.

Though I don't think it would make the strides the article fears, I can very easily see this as a convenient way for Bush to allow Federal funding for Churches to have, for example, nationwide anti-abortion or anti-homosexual rights drives.

It seems to me that Congress acknowledging the political views of a religion would be in essence the political acknowledgement, and therefore establishment, of religion. That clearly and blatantly defies the First Amendment. 2002 elections determining, I would predict this to go no further than the Senate, and right to the Supreme Court if it actually somehow was passed.

As far as the IRS goes, I think Falwell and others have already done enough political preaching to merit a tax audit. There's no way I want to even think of what thhis bill could give him the power to do.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 1:21 PM on August 28, 2002

"...I think Falwell and others have already done enough political preaching to merit a tax audit."

I hope those others includes the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton.
posted by philip_buster at 1:37 PM on August 28, 2002

Not taxing donations of churches and other groups is a problem, in my opinion. Refund monies to groups that can prove charitable work and many thorny issues are resolved.
posted by TskTsk at 1:40 PM on August 28, 2002

so, what happens when people start abandoning your First Church of the Hungry Squid because they don't agree with the Priest's endorsement of a candidate? or, will the Church ban those who don't agree with their endorsement or support the Church's stance on squid feeding? sounds to me like this would be a bad thing for the faithful of any political persuasion.

and really, if your congregation wants to support political initiatives, they have the option of individually joining political groups. no one's free speech is being curtailed.
posted by tolkhan at 1:43 PM on August 28, 2002

Once again the Bush administration has managed to send an icy frisson of fear racing up my spine.
posted by Grod at 1:53 PM on August 28, 2002

While churches perhaps have self-evident arguments for their involvement, it bothers me in that one can escape rational political philosophy, by deferring to 'a higher authority'.

To say that 'God' wants it that way holds no weight, for me. Even if 'God' is seen as a sort of human collective, ebbing toward some general consensus of ethics or morality, one should still be able to critique and logically present a political belief of platform.

To do otherwise is to undercut political progress, as it undermines the legitimacy of political thought and action.
posted by plexi at 1:57 PM on August 28, 2002

Tough call about the First Amendment, XQUZYPHYR. ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...) Technically, this would be about the political voice of a "church", not a belief...but that another discussion. Yes, it is a slippery slope. On the up side of this: politicians will take money from anyone, even different sides; and the "Religious Right" seems to have really lost its importance in national politics (local politics may be another story).

And frankly, I wouldn't want to put money down (no pun meant) on which way the current Supreme Court would go on this.

Vis10n: PACs do have to pay taxes; but some nonprofits -- 501(c)(3) -- can take an "H election" in their IRS status, which allows them to spend a small percentage of their budget on lobbying (20%?). There are tons of non-"church" groups that are adherents of a religion that give political money-- pro-choice Catholics, pro-Israel, pro-Muslim, ad infinitum. If someone wants their money to advance their religious beliefs in the political forum, there are lots of already-legal opportunities.
posted by PennyPrune at 1:59 PM on August 28, 2002

Given the climate towards Muslims in this country, a bill allowing mosques to participate in political campaigns should kill this bill good and dead.
posted by laz-e-boy at 2:02 PM on August 28, 2002

Believe it or not, Lazy, most people actually are not quite so knee-jerk and, well, awful as you would conjecture.

That said, what part of "separation of church and state" do folks not understand?
posted by donkeyschlong at 2:12 PM on August 28, 2002

That said, what part of "separation of church and state" do folks not understand?

It's not about separation of church and state at all. As said, its the ability for a church to voice political speech like an individual. However, as a non-taxpaying unit, they have an immunity unlike an everyday joe. So, does the church give up political speech to gain the ability to be recognized as a non-profit organization? The original bill that put the whole thing in place was rather obscure about why.

Given the climate towards Muslims in this country, a bill allowing mosques to participate in political campaigns should kill this bill good and dead.

Uh, why? What do you mean, climate towards Muslims? For the very minor minority that couldn't stand the idea that this is not a theocracy (and yes, it is a very, very small minority) they wouldn't have a strong platform to launch from. And anyone that has eyes on the political uses of churches would surely put no objection forward; Christian churches and candidates would be able to funnel much more money then a mosque for the opposition. If a mosque supported the opposition. I don't think anyone would really see it as a problem.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 2:27 PM on August 28, 2002

Seems to me the problem here lies in allowing only religious organizations to be involved in partisan campaigns, thus unconstitutionally giving a privilege to religious non-profit organizations which is denied to non-religious non-profit organizations. If the law is changed so that all non-profit organizations can get involved in the political process, you don't have that problem.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:27 PM on August 28, 2002

Yes, another one of those posts were it can be boiled to "I don't agree with what they say so I shouldn't support their right to it say."

Hey I hate the religious right and the views of a lot of churches /mosques/synagogues, but that doesn't mean I don't want to hear what they have to say or don't what them in the nation debate. Sometimes I wonder why those who call themselves liberals use the same disgusting tactics as those who sit on the far right.

Silence those who you disagree with using thinly veiled Establishment Clause argument, quite cleaver. That's no better than Bush/Aschroft commanding the press not to criticize the "War on Terror," Cheers!
posted by Bag Man at 2:30 PM on August 28, 2002

Damn A href=""title="I don't care if it's not exactly the right word. I wanted to use it.">antidisestablishmentarianists
posted by KnitWit at 2:43 PM on August 28, 2002

Damn antidisestablishmentarianists
posted by KnitWit at 2:44 PM on August 28, 2002

The House bill seems to have languished in committee, but the Senate bill is still alive and kicking.

1 . Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (Introduced in House [H.R.2357.IH]
Latest Major Action: 6/28/2001 Referred to House committee. Status: Referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

2 . Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (Introduced in Senate) [S.2886.IS]
Latest Major Action: 8/1/2002 Referred to Senate committee.
Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance.

The congressional search engine won't allow for bookmarked queries, but you can go here, then search for the terms or numbers above to get the full texts of the bills, as well as other relevant info.

The Legislative Advocacy Center has a petition and some statistics against these bills.

Personally, I believe that if churches want to get into the business of electing politicians, then they should be willing to lose their tax free status. I'm ok with that. Pay your taxes like every other entity or citizen and welcome to the party. But, if you get to have these monster campuses that don't contribute to the local schools or streets or police or fire protection...then by gods, you shouldn't be able to spend those tax savings on electing your pet politicos.

We have a separation of church and state for a very good reason. Political churches are just one step away from a mandated faith. No sir, I don't like it a bit.

Notice that if you google on the title of the bill, you get pages and pages and pages, of right wing Christian conservatives who are spending much time and lobbying efforts to pass this bill. So, I think we can probably guess who has the most to gain from it's passage.

And what of the people who are neither Christians or conservatives? Should they be cast aside as irrelevant because their churches don't contribute to the fattened pockets of overfed bureaucrats? What of the Jews, and the Muslims and the non-conservative Christians? What of the Hindus and the Buddhists and the rest?

We are a nation of many, many faiths...and to allow one vocal voracious sect to rewrite the constitution for their own benefit is inexcusable.
posted by dejah420 at 3:06 PM on August 28, 2002

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

How is this a Seperation of Church and State issue? It favors no particular religion => doesn't have the govn't establishing a religion. It allows political speech, but that's common to everyone.

As said, compare church tax exempt status and political speech, but it still isn't an establishment clause debate.

And the whole thing gives houses of worship this political speech right, right? How is this unfair to other faiths?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 3:25 PM on August 28, 2002

Lord Chancellor, right on.

The purposes of the establishment, no tests, and free exercise clauses were to keep the state from favoring one demonination, or unduly influencing the choice of denomination, or of exercising control over a denomination.

In no way shape or form were they intended, nor should they be interpreted, to prevent state support of religion generally or to limit or restrict participation of any or all denominations in politics.
posted by MattD at 3:42 PM on August 28, 2002

Actually, the government does currently "define or grant" religions because of the tax status. Only approved religions get tax free status. Ergo, only "approved" religions will get to be PAC's...

I'm saying...if the churches which currently have the advantage of tax free existence are willing to give that up...then welcome to the political machine. But for a tax exempt organization to then also have the power to lobby, campaign and donate money to get a candidate with their specific targeted message elected...why, then it becomes too dangerous.

That is state sponsored religion, electing the state which sponsors it.

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America and a leading promoter and authority of the U.S. Constitution, had this to say in regard to the exemption of taxation for religious organizations:

"Are the U.S. duly awake to the tendency of the precedents they are establishing, in the multiplied incorporations of religious congregations with the faculty of acquiring and holding property real as well as personal...? The people of the U.S. owe their independence and their Liberty to the wisdom of descrying in the minute of 3 pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom, in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises, and growing up from small beginnings."

Apparently not all future legislators or bureaucrats visualized the tenacity of religion to develop into huge corporations with vast properties, investments, and influence over legislation favorable to its prosperity. The present has proven Madison correct in his assumption.

My freedom, yours, and every other individual that exists in this society, is threatened by the immense influence of organized religion in its massive appeal to legislate laws favorable to its establishment. We do not as individuals, have the use of untaxed funds to exercise leverage over politicians. One sect of a religion should not be able to use the millions of dollars saved from taxes to pump into the campaigns of politicians who agreed to spread their brand of bigotry and superstition.
posted by dejah420 at 3:46 PM on August 28, 2002

And, it should be mentioned that Democrats are at least as dependent as Republicans upon using churches as get-out-the-vote fulcrums. Black Baptist churches are core elements of virtually every Democratic GOTV effort in every election. If Jeb Bush could shut politics out of the Black Baptist churches in Florida this November, his reelection would be a pretty sure bet.
posted by MattD at 3:47 PM on August 28, 2002

Thanks PennyPrune. Wasn't sure on that one.

Let me just restate my opinion, since it appears to have been misinterpreted: Generally speaking, I think political peach is a slippery slope for religions... and I'm lucky enough to belong to a faith that by-and-large stays out of anything remotely resembling the ballot box.

That said, I would like a little loosening of the current regulations in favor of allowing greater political speech to religions. I say this because the current climate would consider any utterance from the pulpit regarding any issue that would come before the electorate as anathema, which is a shame.

But like I said: it's a slippery slope.
posted by silusGROK at 4:08 PM on August 28, 2002

with the whole thing about seperation of church and state, shouldn't that mean that the issue of church should be kept out of the government as much as possible? After all, it's seperation that's called for, not bipartisan endorsement.
posted by trioperative at 4:24 PM on August 28, 2002

One sect of a religion should not be able to use the millions of dollars saved from taxes to pump into the campaigns of politicians who agreed to spread their brand of bigotry and superstition.

Just because something could be used against someone doesn't mean it is an unjust law. And that's what we are debating, not whether churches can become too powerful, because churches are organizations which draw strength from the participants.

That is state sponsored religion, electing the state which sponsors it.

Huh, as said, churches only have the power that people let them have, just like businesses. If a church helps some demagogue get elected, then maybe what its what the people behind a majority want. Not saying it's right or anything, we attempt not to make our Republic into mob rule or anything, but its a risk from the Left and Right, the religious and the secular. If the majority doesn't think like you, well, as long as they obey the constitution, they are entitled to that. We, (and I speak as my liberal side) do not have a duty to chain the political forces against us. A lot of us favor free speech in all events. Is this any different? Just because it can be used against us?

As said, I don't like this being used as a ideological weapon when its simply a political one. If you want to oppose the bill on the grounds that its the price churches pay as nontaxable units, do so. Just don't use the First Amendment to attack for you.

If something isn't an official church, a la Scientology, wouldn't they have the ability to fundraise and do things like that anyway?

On preview: nowhere does it say that the idea of religion should be kept out of govn't. In fact, religion is one of the defining points of a culture, and the government does have some say in things like that. (I mean, what would you have us do, remove religious holidays from all govn't calendars?) It does prohibit the state from sponsoring a religion or making it harder to be a Buddhist than an Episcopalian.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 4:35 PM on August 28, 2002

Taxing church donations would make it harder to be a Buddhist than an Episcopalian. Little churches are often scraping the bottom of the barrel as it is, unable to pay clergy who work full-time; larger churches are able to provide a reasonable salary and very nice benefits to theirs... and as I understand it, that income is also tax-free.

I'd rather keep the tax exempt status and forget this political thing.
posted by Foosnark at 5:13 PM on August 28, 2002

Good point.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:20 PM on August 28, 2002

Horror of the situation aside, this article is well written and funny!
posted by katy_ at 8:30 PM on August 28, 2002

Anybody that thinks that churches don't currently engage in political activism obviously has never been to a Southern Baptist church. Here in Charlottesville, VA, the black churches are where all of the best political action gets done. Candidates get supported, some get made or broken based on the words of a pastor. I don't suppose that's legal in terms of their tax status, but it would be a shame if it had to end. Given the horrible voter turn-out, I figure any time that you can get a few hundred people together is a good time to talk politics.
posted by waldo at 9:47 PM on August 28, 2002

I've often questioned the concept of giving churches any kind of political rights, simply because they can influence their beliefs system, usually based on metaphorical stories, onto the common people who may not agreee with them.

I think the argument that "just because x doesn't agree with them doesn't mean y shouldn't be heard" doesn't hold water here. Reason: As a general rule, conservative, right-wing churches (the ones with the most to gain here), are discriminatory, and do not support equal rights for all Americans, only those who subscribe to their set of beliefs.

In a secular society, what role should a church play in the formation of the government, is what I think it comes down to. Should a reglious institution have a say in how the government operates on a day to day basis in a secular society? No.

Even if you say that there is no establishment of religion, because all points of view are allowed from all churches, it completely disregards that all of these are religions, whereas the constituion establishment clause allows no religion at all. Every religion thrown together is not the same thing as no religion at all.

This is a secular society, where religions are chosen freely, and the concepts of those religions must remain seperate. Already churches have too much influence, and I will point you to the "Defense of Marriage Act" which basically said that on religious and moral implications based on religion, we don't think you should honor x marriage, but should honor y marriage, creating a whole set of second class citizens. There was no reasonable cause to action for this law in a secular society, so religious involvement is proven. So why should be give an entity who pays no taxes, and is in fact a religion, and therefore excluded from government participation, another voice to run rampant over whoever they please?
posted by benjh at 4:13 AM on August 29, 2002

This pony's one trick is to oppose dangerous legislation such as this. The Constitutional issues have been thoroughly covered (thanks all) so how about looking at this from the "Christian" side, since, let's be honest here, the fundies (Southern Baptists, etc.) are where this legislation is coming from. If these folks would only open up that book they keep beating people about the head with they would read what Jesus had to say about His church being involved is politics, money and power. Without further ado:

"man cannot serve both God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13)

And Joshua spoke, as God's representative and said:
"choose this day whom you will serve"

Let's ask Ralph Reed what he thinks about this bill and how actively he's lobbying for it! How many wealthy preacher/politician/businessmen can you name? Do they use religion to promote their own best interests?
posted by nofundy at 5:01 AM on August 29, 2002

mammon a Chaldee or Syriac word meaning "wealth" or "riches" (Luke 16:9-11); also, by personification, the god of riches (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:9-11). []
posted by waldo at 8:10 AM on August 29, 2002

So Benjh, are you saying that we shouldn't give the religious voice because they don't agree with us?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:19 AM on August 29, 2002

No, not that they don't agree, but that is a secular society religious concepts must be left out in order to maintain said secular society. Certain religious moral values can not be inflicted onto others, and this is a perfect example of how they would be.
posted by benjh at 8:30 AM on August 29, 2002

But who says that our society is secular Most of the people in it are religious in some persuasion. The 1st amendment nether in wording or in original intent gives the "no religion in govn't" clause any basis.

And political and government are not synonymous. I can be given political speech, it doesn't mean that I have any more control of govn't than the every day joe does.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:38 AM on August 29, 2002

How is this a Seperation of Church and State issue? It favors no particular religion => doesn't have the govn't establishing a religion.

It's a separation of church and state issue because it favors religious non-profit organizations (which would be allowed to engage in political speech) over non-religious non-profit organizations (which still would be prohibited from endorsing or opposing particular candidates). Not only does the establishment clause prohibit the government from favoring one religion over another, but it also prohibits the favoring of religion over non-religion.

It allows political speech, but that's common to everyone.

Not quite--it allows a religious organization to simultaneously endorse candidates and to maintain its tax-exempt status. Currently this is prohibited, and if this bill passed it would still be prohibited to non-religious organizations.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:46 AM on August 29, 2002

prohibits the favoring of religion over non-religion

Where is this stated?

In all reality, what I would really like to see is non-profit organizations of all types be given both political speech rights and tax-exempt rights.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:03 PM on August 29, 2002

Where is this stated?

Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Tp., decided by the supreme court in 1947: "The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." (Emphasis mine.)

(Findlaw's annotations on the Establishment Clause adds this on the topic: "Establishment Clause jurisprudence since, whatever its twists and turns, maintains this view.")

In all reality, what I would really like to see is non-profit organizations of all types be given both political speech rights and tax-exempt rights.

With that I agree, and it would avoid the constitutional problems the current bill will face.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:33 PM on August 29, 2002

The evangelical American church and its attendant AM radio "760 K-Spirit" complete with the Oliver North Show, Focus on the Family, Janet Partial, Pat Robertson and Jay Seculow's preposterous ACLJ et al is precisely why there exists the republican poor. This is just stepping up the religious brainwash as it masquerades as Vacation Bible School, Ladies retreats, friday night youth frisbee fun etc. The politicians behind this bill are salivating at the prospect of the increased programming potential of having unfettered access to everyone's brains as they dutifully fulfill their faithful obligations.
posted by crasspastor at 1:37 PM on August 29, 2002

Does everyone here hate Evangelical Christiandom? Southern Baptists?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:52 PM on August 29, 2002

No... not everyone.
posted by silusGROK at 8:21 AM on August 30, 2002

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