August 13, 2001
Legislation Needed to End the IRS Threat to Religious Freedom
Are the political beliefs of churchgoers the business of the IRS? Not according to North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones, who recently introduced legislation that addresses the very serious issue of IRS harassment of churches that engage in conservative political activity. Specifically, the bill changes the tax code to clarify that no church or religious organization will lose its tax-exempt status because it participates in political campaigns or works to influence legislation. This bill is badly needed to end the IRS practice of threatening certain politically disfavored faiths with loss of their tax-exempt status, while ignoring the very open and public political activities of other churches. While some well-known leftist preachers routinely advocate socialism from the pulpit, many conservative Christian and Jewish congregations cannot present their political beliefs without risking scrutiny from the tax collector. The "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (HR 2357) will end this political favoritism and government interference with free speech. I'm pleased to report that the Act already has been sponsored by more that 50 members of Congress.
The supposed motivation behind the ban on political participation by churches is the need to maintain a rigid separation between church and state. However, the First amendment simply prohibits the federal government from passing laws that establish religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion. There certainly is no mention of any "separation of church and state," yet lawmakers and judges continually assert this mythical doctrine. The result is court rulings and laws that separate citizens from their religious beliefs in all public settings, in clear violation of the free exercise clause. Our Founders never intended a rigidly secular public society, where people must nonsensically disregard their deeply held beliefs in all matters of government and politics. They certainly never imagined that the federal government would actively work to chill the political activities of some churches.
Speech is speech, regardless of the setting. There is no legal distinction between religious expression and political expression; both are equally protected by the First amendment. Religious believers do not drop their political opinions at the door of their place of worship, nor do they disregard their faith at the ballot box. Religious morality will always inform the voting choices of Americans of all faiths. The collectivist left, however, seeks to impose the viewpoint that public life must be secular, and that government cannot reflect morality derived from faith. The collectivist left is threatened by strong religious institutions, because it wants an ever-growing federal government to serve as the unchallenged authority in our society. People of faith tend to put their religious convictions ahead of any allegiance to the government, particularly when that government displays such hostility towards religion in general. In other words, the collectivists fear that some Americans' deeply held religious beliefs will stand in the way of the continued growth of secular big government. So the real motivation behind the insistence on a separation of church and state is not based on respect for the First amendment, but rather on a desire to diminish the influence of religious conservatives at the ballot box.
The Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom must not depend on the whims of IRS bureaucrats. Religious institutions cannot freely preach their beliefs if they must fear that the government will accuse them of "politics." We cannot allow churches to be silenced any more than we can allow political dissent in general to be silenced. Free societies always have strong, independent institutions that are not afraid to challenge and criticize the government.