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OK. Today is the "Pulpit Initiative" sponsored by Ralph Stanley and the ADF (Alliance Defense fund). Haven't heard anything yet on the news on how it went off. But we'll see. Maybe it just fizzled. Actually, I hope so.

The Pulpit Initiative, for those who haven't heard, is blatant preaching from the pulpit on behalf of a particular political candidate (wanna guess which one?). The ADF claims this is a First Amendment issue; they want "to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from his pulpit without fearing censorship or punishment by the government. " (

No one is trying to censor or punish pastors. That is a complete misstatement of the situation.

The 1954 Johnson act bans non-profits from intervening in politics. They can speak on political issues; that's fine. The line is drawn at actually endorsing or condemning a particular candidate. If any non-profit 501c3 (not just a church) crosses this line, they can lose of their IRS tax-exempt status. There is no felony or misdemeanor here. No one would be arrested. It is an administrative matter, a loss of privileged status.

But this loss of a privileged status is being cast as a 'punishment'. Stanley says it infringes both freedom of speech and separation of church and state. 

Pastors can say anything they want, as private citizens. And, if they are willing to forgo their privilaged status, they can also say anything they want from the pulpit. But when they act like a political action committee, they are subject to taxation as a PAC. Donations are not tax-deductible and the church organization will have to pay taxes like anyone else.

Neither religious expression nor free speech is really the issue -- seems like a transparent economic motive to me.

Several of the pastors interviewed on this issue seem to think that the tax-exempt status of churches is enshrined in the Constitution. It isn't. Nothing in the Constitution addresses taxation of churches, or any exemption for churches. The IRS itself only dates from 1913. Where does this idea come from?

The Constitution does have the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." This was ratified December 15, 1791.

The Johnson Act applies to any organization which wishes to enjoy tax-exempt status. It does not single out churches, nor does it in any way "prohibit the free exercise" of religion; it just defines the IRS requirements for the special privilege of tax exemption.

I used to be treasurer at my church, and currently chair the Finance committee. And I know that we have never, since the 1600s, ever paid property taxes on the church building. So there is some sort of tax exemption that has "always existed". But if we are going to go back to colonial times, we should look at the whole picture.

Many of the first colonists were religious fanatics who chose to be governed by a theocracy. (The Taliban would be a good modern analogy.) The church was the government, and the government collected money via church tithes. The English had an official State Church but the Puritans felt that the government was not church-centered enough. They elevated the church above secular government. For example, you could not be a member of the governing council unless you were a respected member of the church (essentially a church elder).

The new Jerusalem couldn't last, however. Roger Williams and other religious dissidents broke off to form a separate colony which was the first to explicitly guarantee religious freedom and tolerance. Churches were no longer the seat of government, but they were often the largest buildings in the community and served as community gathering spots. Church property was not taxed, but their previous direct support was taken away. By providing services, they essentially paid tax "in-kind".

How does property tax exemption relate to separation of church and state? And should it continue?

State-level exemptions for church property exist in all 50 states, but in some states they must be applied for, and in many jurisdictions the exempted property is narrowly defined (for instance, the church itself is exempted, but not a parish hall, etc.).

Recent court decisions have been interesting. In 1970, an athiest (I believe) named Walz sued the Tax Commission of the City of New York, saying that the church tax exemption violated the the"no establishment" clause of the first amendment. The court ruled that while a direct tax subsidy would be a violation, a property tax exemption was not, since it did not give money to churchs, it merely abstained from demanding the church support the state.

In 1972, the tenth Circuit Court stated this more strongly: "tax exemption is a privilege, a matter of grace rather than a right." In 1983, the Supreme Court stated that "Both tax exemptions and tax deductibility are a form of subsidy that is administered through the tax system. A tax exemption has much the same effect as a cash grant to the organization of the amount of tax it would have to pay on its income."

The stage is set for another lawsuit. I think with the 1972 and 1983 clarifications, there is a very good chance that a suit claiming that tax-exemption constitutes a tax subsidy which violates separation of church and state would fly. And judging by the comments I've read about the Pulpit Initiative, this would be welcomed by major segments of the population.

Our church has always avoided taking federal monies, because with federal money comes federal oversight, and the church believes in social activism which often runs counter to the government's stances. If tax exemption is ruled to be a federal subsidy, I don't think a heck of a lot would change. We would need to come up with the money for property tax, which would admittedly be a burden, but so are the higher fuel prices this year, and the need for a new roof. We would just have to suck it up. Would donations go down if they were not tax-exempt? Probably not to a significant extent. Basket donations are anonymous, and few donors give so much that they are issued documentation for their taxes. I think that most people give because they want to support the church, not because they want a tax deduction.

Some religious sites are claiming that taxation would constitute government control over a church, since the power to tax implies a power to regulate and possibly to destroy. But I think they are confusing the church as a religious body with the physical property of the church. My church has very little organization, and what it has is all volunteer. Our entire budget is probably lower than the threshold required for reporting to the IRS. If necessary, we could meet in private houses, and while it would make some of our outreach efforts more difficult, it would not compromise our religious beliefs.

Other churches have multimillion dollar stadiums to accommodate thousands of people, or run television studios as part of their mission. Is that structure required for their religious beliefs, or is it merely an organization founded on religious beliefs, which could fulfil its mission just as well if it were commercial and paid taxes?

This Pulpit Initiative might backfire. The easiest way to free preachers to campaign from the pulpit is to remove the one thing that prevents them from doing so -- the tax-exempt status of churches.


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