Editorial: Church endorsement of candidates? Fine, pay taxes like rest of us

Posted February 7, 2017 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2017 5:46 a.m. EST

A CBC Editorial: Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017; Editorial# 8121
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

President Donald Trump’s promise to “totally destroy” a 60-year-old ban on tax-exempt houses of worship supporting political candidates has nothing to do with freedom of speech or religion.

It has everything to do with opening up another unfettered and unregulated avenue to pump billions into American politics. It is an invitation for corruption and destruction of the principle of church-state separation.

During the National Prayer Breakfast last week Trump said he’d seek to overturn the “Johnson Amendment,” a 1954 law that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits including churches, synagogues and other places or worship, from “directly or indirectly” participating in a political candidate’s campaign.

A Republican-dominated Congress passed the law in 1954, signed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. It was unanimously upheld in 1983 by a Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court in an opinion written by conservative Justice William Rehnquist.

Don’t be fooled, the issue is less about free speech and more about power and even more so, about money.

Today there is no law preventing a single religious leader in the United States from endorsing a candidate from the pulpit or campaigning in the sanctuary. But, if they do, the churches can’t also claim lucrative tax exemptions. The nation’s taxpayers shouldn’t be required to pay for a church’s campaigning for candidates through tax exemptions.

“A legislature’s decision not to subsidize the exercise of a fundamental right does not infringe the right,” Rehnquist said in his 1983 court opinion.

This has been a hot-button issue for conservative Christian leaders, and Trump is now pandering to a well-financed portion of the Republican Party’s political base. Changing the law would open the door to some of the nation’s mega-churches and institutions like those run by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham becoming super-PACs.

Not only would churches become a vehicle for political contributions – they would also be a tax-deductible pipeline into campaign treasuries. Imagine the clout of an organization with the ability to launder a tax-deductible donation into a political contribution.

The history of our nation and the heritage of the First Amendment isn’t exclusively the guarantee of the unfettered right of religious practice. It is just as significant that the government and religion are separate. That is the basis for our nation’s founding and a big reason why the first settlers from England sought refuge in America.

If religious organizations feel it is critical to become directly involved in politics, fine. But it would be a violation of our nation’s most basic principles to do it on the backs of taxpayers.

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