There are very specific and solid reasons why religious institutions qualify for tax-free status in this country. Similarly, there also are very specific and solid reasons why religious organizations lose their tax-free status when they engage in political activities. President Donald Trump either hasn’t weighed those reasons or chooses to ignore them.
Trump issued an executive order May 4 effectively telling the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce federal law when preachers engage in political activities from the pulpit. He titled the order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”
The title is misleading. All Americans have a constitutional right to free speech. They do not need a presidential order to protect that right, or the one protecting religious liberty, because they’re already enshrined in the First Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was signed into law in 1954 to ensure tax-protected religious groups didn’t stray into the realm of politics.
What’s at issue is whether churches and other religious institutions should enjoy tax-free status while engaging in overt political advocacy. They should not. If preachers want to be politicians, they should step away from the pulpit and stop abusing their tax-free status. If their priority is to keep the IRS out of their business, then they should stick to religion and leave the politics to someone else.
Tax-exempt status means an organization, religious or otherwise, gets to shift the burden of financing government operations to us, the taxpayers. It’s unfair to allow them to engage in politics at our expense.
Religious groups that oppose abortion rights don’t want taxpayer money used in any way to fund abortions because they don’t want to fund a practice they find abhorrent. Likewise, Americans who do not agree with the political activities of a minister, rabbi or imam should not be required to fund those activities through a religious institution’s tax-free status.
The danger with mixing politics and religion is the implied invocation of divine wisdom, as if to say, “God wants you to vote this way.” Tax-free status adds a stamp of government approval where it’s not warranted.
The Supreme Court would be hard-pressed to uphold any such “right.” Federal courts have said public employees must administer their duties without religious preference and without imposing their personal religious beliefs on the people they serve, as a Kentucky county clerk discovered in 2015 when she refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
It’s not about free speech or religious liberty. It’s about protecting taxpayer rights from abuse by people who claim to speak in the name of God. Other countries have seen disastrous results when they head down the slippery slope of state-supported religion. The Founders created that wall for a reason, and Trump should think twice before chipping away at it.