All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. is under scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service, following an anti-war sermon made at the church last year. The IRS is investigating the church because of a tax code that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from intervening in a political campaign. This activity reeks of political motivation. The church’s scrutiny of the war in Iraq criticizes the Bush administration, while Catholic officials who criticized Sen. John Kerry’s position on abortion, for instance, have not been investigated. But any political motivations aside, this action by the IRS is unacceptable for a more basic reason: Any nonprofit organization should be allowed to engage in free speech of any type, including political speech.
The sermon in question imagined Jesus criticizing both President Bush and Kerry for supporting the war in Iraq while failing to pay attention to issues such as poverty in America. This was an entirely legitimate statement that any nonprofit should be able to make without risking its tax-exempt status. The idea behind allowing charitable organizations to be free from taxes is to promote the vital work that these organizations carry out in American society – not to exchange their right to free speech for tax exemptions.
The right to free speech is among our most basic. It is important that Americans defend this right and that the government not infringe upon it needlessly. This IRS tax code does just that by limiting the political speech that any nonprofit organization can make.
The right to engage in political speech should extend to churches. Political speech is a fundamentally secular action, which does not violate the separation between the church and the government. Telling a church that it cannot endorse a candidate, however, arguably violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. Any religious organization allowed to freely exercise its beliefs should be allowed to declare to its members that one candidate or another more closely adheres to that religion’s beliefs – and in turn endorse that candidate over his opponent.
Free speech is one of the most passionately defended rights laid out in the Bill of Rights. This is because of the crucial role free speech plays in protecting all of the other civil liberties that Americans enjoy. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech for everyone – not just the people and organizations that pay taxes. The government should not use the IRS to limit the free speech of any nonprofit organization in America.