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For God and country

Yesterday, I brushed up against the church/state issue in the United States, when I discussed a church that had chosen to take a stand against our immigration laws and offer sanctuary to an illegal alien. A few people delved into the larger issue, and some said that my suggestion the church lose its tax-exempt status as an "open assault on the church," even citing "the power to tax is the power to destroy."

This got me thinking into the whole issue of church-state relations, especially in relation to their tax-exempt status.

As I understand it, the idea of churches being exempt from taxes has two purposes. For one, it gives them a certain level of independence from government interference, reinforcing the First Amendment "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment. Further, by making them financially independent from the government, it promotes the "no establishment" clause by keeping them from becoming dependent on government largesse.

The more subtle point here is that the government is, indirectly, subsidizing these churches. Not only are they exempt from taxation, but gifts to churches are tax-deductible for the giver. In essence, it makes more sense to give one's money to a church (or any other charitable, tax-exempt organization) because it can end up lowering one's overall tax burden.

So, why should churches benefit from this? The notion seems to be that the government won't endorse any particular religion, but in general favors the notion that the people be religious. They seem to think that religious citizens are preferable to non-religious ones.

Even though I am a dyed-in-the-wool born-again agnostic, I tend to agree with that. I've found that for the most part, people with a modicum of religious inclination tend to be a bit more responsible. I have several theories why this is so, and it's probably a combination of many of them and many more I haven't considered, but it seems a fairly good indicator.

(Yes, there are exceptions. Certain so-called "religions" like Scientology challenge this position, and extremists of many denominations and faiths are often more trouble than average folks. That's why I called it an "indicator" and not a rule.)

So, then, why would I advocate stripping the Adalberto United Methodist Church of its tax-exempt status? Why would I, as Mac Lorry points out, wish to apply "the power to destroy" against this church?

Because that tax-exempt status comes at a price. In order to remain free of taxation, a church (or any other charitable organization) needs to avoid getting too involved in politics. They cannot endorse candidates, they cannot lobby lawmakers on issues, and they cannot attach themselves to any political party.

In this case, the church in question is choosing to not just meddle in a political question (the issue of illegal immigration), but to take a firm stand and defy existing federal laws. They are not questioning the law, simply saying that they will not comply with it.

And since I first stumbled across this story, a lot more information has come to light. Digger has been watching the story for some time, and it turns out that Elvira Arellano isn't just another illegal alien -- she's been on the forefront of the amnesty issue for some time, and been quite upfront about her own status as an illegal alien.

This is a very minor issue, but the principle it challenges must be preserved. Their action needs must invoke a reaction.

However, it must be a very careful, very measured response. This is hardly a call for a Clinton-era response, like the armed assault to return Elian Gonzalez to Cuba or the wholesale butchery of the Branch Davidians or the senseless body count of the Ruby Ridge standoff. The legal challenge to the church's tax-exempt status sends just the right signal: They can take this position if they wish, but not while continuing to benefit from government subsidization of their continued practices.

I would dearly love to see the church's lawyer in court fighting the move. "Your honor, my clients are being brutally repressed from exercising their First Amendment rights by the government refusing to continue their subsidizing of their church!"

As long as it's not before the 9th Circuit or Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, that is. Then all bets are off.


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Comments (11)

I feel Churches should not ... (Below threshold)

I feel Churches should not be taxed. They are meant to spread the word of peace and love like all other religious and holy places of worship.
In fact I feel all places of worship should be promoted. It isn't something evil.

You don't really *get* the ... (Below threshold)

You don't really *get* the argument here, do you Muslim Unity.

A few points about your pos... (Below threshold)
yetanotherjohn:

A few points about your post.

1) Part of the reason for the tax exemption is as you say, for the government not to be able to "tax to destruction". A part of that you didn't cover is that because the church function is unique, a tax policy which could be seen as neutral (aka treating the Church the same as any other business) would by necessity not be neutral. Imagine taxing a church at the same rate as say business office space. It would force the church to change its operation to be able to pay the tax rate that works for a for-profit organization.

2) My father ran into one of the alternatives to the tax neutral option, namely state imposed tax to support the church. He was traveling in Germany for business. He had a weekend stay in a German town, so he went to a Lutheran church near where he was staying. My grandfather used to preach in German here in the US, so my father grew up listening to the service in German, which gave him at least some hope of following along with the service. When he went in, the church was fairly empty, so he selected a pew and sat down. An usher came and escorted him from the pew to a back pew, even though there was a great deal of room open in front of him and no one sat where he had sat. After the service, my father tried his childhood German to understand what was going on. As best he could make out, the people in the area had a choice of having a certain tax amount to go either to the church or the government (no option on keeping the money). So since the local people had paid for the church, most of the pews had been reserved for them. The fact that they didn't show up on Sunday to sit in the pew didn't change the rules that those pews were reserved for tax paying locals and the guests like my father had tosit in the back. I think the US method that the state won't help the church survive is a better one. It means a church servives only by serving the needs of its members, not because they will get a check no matter what.

3) The tax exempt subsidy is for charity, not religeon. You note this in passing, but its a point well worth emphasizing. The freedom to have no religeon and yet to gain whatever perceived benefit of the tax exempt status of charity giving is available to the non-religeous by giving to a non-religeous charity (or a religeous charity if they want).

4) I'm not clear if you understand the idea behind the tax benefit. Being able to deduct giving to a charity is not necessarily of benefit to the tax payer. Let me give an example. Say that I made $10 and had a tax rate of 35%. I could pay $3.50 in taxes and have $6.50 in my pocket. Whether the government should be able to cut itself in as a bit more than 1/3 partner on my income is a debateable point, but not the subject of this example. Now take the same situation of earning $10 with a 35% tax rate. I then decide to give $1 to a charity (church or other wise). I would then have to pay the 35% tax rate on the remaing $9, which comes to $3.15. So I end up with $5.85 in my pocket. So in a way I haven't lowered my tax burden in that I have less money in the pocket at the end. The amount of taxes I paid was less, but it correspond to my having less money in my pocket also.

5) As far as your main point, I would agree, but I would be even more subtle than sending the pixish looking agent in. I would send a letter in saying that an IRS review of the tax exempt status of the church may be subject to review based on a) the church advicating political issues and b) the church using its resources to harbor criminals. Let the church push her out the door or stand by their principles. If they would rather lose their tax exempt status, let them make that choice. But any confrontation as you described would be accompanied by MSM articles about "Federal agents invaded the church to rip her away despite her pleas for sanctuary". In short, be more vicious and send the IRS lawyers after them, don't pussy foot around with a federal agent.

Jay-Your post and ... (Below threshold)
Brian The Adequate:

Jay-

Your post and logic is well reasoned, but I respectfully disagree that the tax exempt status of this particular church should be selectively revoked. The conflict you describe is why (IMHO) the tax exempt status of all churches should be revoked, for the good of the church.

I am certainly NOT opposed to religion and firmly believe religion is a good thing and should be encouraged. I am a born again Christian, active in the church. I have served on Church boards and as a Church Treasurer.

I do not believe that the tax exempt status for Churches is a good thing, because it entangles the church with the state and compromises the integrity of the church. The threat of revoking the tax exempt status has been used selectively to silence the moral voice of churches opposed to abortion (although blatent campaign events for candidates running as democrats are apparently OK). As Jesus said, no one can adequately serve two masters, it is inevitable that one will be chosen over the other.

I understand the reluctance of church leaders to give up the tax advantage in gaining donations. (I do deduct my own contributions and will continue to do so as long as the current law is in place.*). And some churches will probably fail if the tax law is changed, however, Christian churches should have the courage of their convictions if they really believe in Biblical teaching. If the church is truly doing the work of God, then God will not let them fail. If however the church is serving man then it will fail (and should IMHO fail). Hat tip to Gemaliel by way of Acts 5:34-38.

Getting rid of the Tax free status for churches would also allow us to deal more effectively with scams masquarading as religions (eg Sc1entology).

*I believe in rendering unto Caeser what is Caeser's and NOT ONE PENNY MORE.

"I've found that for the mo... (Below threshold)
Publicus:

"I've found that for the most part, people with a modicum of religious inclination tend to be a bit more responsible."

I've never seen any evidence of any relationship between morality and religion or irreligion. That the author has "found that" to be the case is, for me, unconvincing.

Regarding tax free status for churches (and other religious institutions), it is the law of the land and consistent with the principle of separation of church and state. I agree with Jefferson on this issue. The government should neither regulate nor oppose nor support any religious activities. Religion is none of government's business.

A minor correction, Jay: th... (Below threshold)

A minor correction, Jay: the assault at Ruby Ridge occurred in August of 1991, while Bush the Elder was still in office.

fatman - It was <a... (Below threshold)
sabrina:

fatman -

It was August of 1992 - under Clinton's watch.

sorry - still elder Bush - ... (Below threshold)
Sabrina:

sorry - still elder Bush - but did occur in 1992 - not 1991

I say run in with a full ta... (Below threshold)
Gmac:

I say run in with a full tactical assault, grab her, slam her on a one way express ride south of the border and do it in front of as many telivision crews as possible, political correctness be damned.
The Democrats did it and few raised any complaints that were allowed or heard by the courts.
To Have W show the same kind of determination that Clinton and Reno did would handcuff the response from the Democrats and send a very powerful message to illegals here now.
GO HOME, or we'll help you go and you might get the express ride south.
This woman is clearly flouting the law and deserves nothing less from Fedco.
Just because she's hiding in a church shouldn't protect her any more that Randy Weaver's property or the Branch Davidian's compound, not to mention private property rights that now seem to be nonexistant when it comes to no knock search and seizure operations.

To me, organized religion a... (Below threshold)
JTEA:

To me, organized religion and politics are essentially the same concept. People united with a common belief in something and often having an enemy or dark opposition to use as a fear towards keeping people in line. Power is supposed to be used for the good of the people and those who are in power have to be seen as Better then average. The separation of religion and state isn't easy to support when most countries have the word or reference to a god related to their people.

Amnesity and forgiveness, rules and law, Often opinions of them are based on personal experience or personal involvement. Can any "recognized establishment" truely defend rule breakers from their consequences. And if they can, doesn't that weaken our own sense of right and wrong.. casting doubt on both the politics and religion. Two institutions that survive only on the faith of their constituants

The idea that a church can ... (Below threshold)

The idea that a church can have it's tax exempt status removed was created by Lyndon B. Johnson (no friend of the church) in 1954 with the creation of the 501c3 tax section. However, that's all it is, an idea. An incorrect idea at that. A church does not even have to apply for tax exempt status through 501c3. Being a church makes it tax exempt.

Too often pastors and congregations (poorly informed) are lead to believe that they can have their tax exempt status revoked due to the code in 501c3. That's a poor reading of the code that only those who would like to silence the church would have you believe.

Were churches taxed prior to 1954? No.

Infact the IRS code 508(c)(1)(A) specifically states that Churches and their integral affiliates are "mandatory exceptions" to having to qualify for tax exempt status through 501c3.

Therefore, if a church has (through poor advice) applied and received 501c3 status, technically that can be removed for by the limitations placed on it by 501c3, however that simply means it's kicked out of the status that was incorrectly given to it by 501c3 in the first place, and doesn't remove the already tax exempt status it holds as a church.

It's simply a tool that's been used to scare churches to not use it's collective influence in political change.

Q. Did the church that hosted a political rally for John Kerry during a normal Sunday service with Rev. Jesse Jackson, & Rev. Al Sharpton giving political speech from the pulpit in 2004 lose its tax exempt status for poking too deeply into politics?

A. No.




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