Recent news that the Internal Revenue Service is targeting a liberal California church for an anti-war sermon before last year’s presidential election understandably disturbed the Daily’s editorial board. The editorial it passed in reaction (Praying to talk, 11/17/2005), however, went far beyond questioning whether this action is politically motivated. The Daily took a broad stance that all nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should be free from any restrictions on political speech. This position, if carried out, would draw church and state dangerously close together at a time when the faith-based Bush administration is already making a mockery of secular governance.
The tax law giving exemptions to churches is a straightforward solution to the role of religious institutions in a secular state. Acknowledging that religion is a sphere that should not be within its control, the government doesn’t tax churches. In exchange for this benefit, churches accept speech restrictions that prohibit them from attempting to influence the government in elections.
As the law is typically enforced, religious leaders are allowed to speak out on moral and societal issues as their faith dictates, but are prohibited from endorsing candidates or directly aiding their campaigns. Indeed, one of the most troubling aspects about the case involving All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena, Calif. is that the sermon the IRS objects to did not endorse a candidate; though the sermon sharply criticized President Bush for his decision to go to war in Iraq, it also took Sen. John Kerry to task for supporting Bush’s war and suggested both candidates had given insufficient attention to poverty.
The Daily is a strong supporter of free speech, and its concerns with speech restrictions on nonprofits are understandable. Indeed, these rules apply to all charitable groups. It is rather difficult to understand why the United Way, say, should have anything less than the full First Amendment rights its leaders otherwise enjoy as private citizens. (The legislative history behind the limits on tax-exempt groups suggests that charitable organizations serving as cogs in political campaigns spurred the move.)
In the case of religious organizations, however, the Daily’s adamant belief that America is and should be a secular state heavily outweighs the limited free speech concerns with this law. Allowing ministers and monks to influence elections through their congregations encourages a far greater degree of entanglement between church and state than our country should accept. You don’t have to look as far as Iraq to see that mobilizing religious groups for every political campaign isn’t exactly the smoothest way to run a democracy.
More troubling are the implications for interaction between church and state, given the direction of this administration. Reflecting the influence of conservative Christians in the Republican Party, Bush has pushed for policies such as federal funding for faith-based initiatives. It’s not difficult to imagine corrupt clergy, once allowed to engage in campaigns, offering up their believers’ political support as a bargaining chip when negotiating with the government for public money.
Allowing tax-exempt religious groups to advocate their beliefs on specific policies while preventing them from joining in political campaigns is a fair balance in a free, secular state. There’s no need to change tax laws around to give religion more influence in our public life.
Christopher Zbrozek is an LSA senior and an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.