What Hath Pulpit Freedom Sunday Wrought?

Tax_The_Churches[5]Pulpit Freedom Sunday may not have prevented the Obama re-election, but it seems to have had at least one effect: getting the Secular Coalition agitated. They are now calling for increased IRS scrutiny of the church:

Specifically, the Coalition is asking that two exemptions are removed from the tax code. The two provisions are 26 USC §6033(a)(3)(A)(i) and (iii) and (C)(i) which exempts churches, their integrated auxiliaries and exclusively religious activities from the requirement to file an annual return-something every other organization exempt from taxation must do-and 26 USC § 7611, which includes five pages of restrictions on the IRS’s ability to investigate churches engaged in activity that would void a 501c3 tax exemption.

No doubt the Secular Coalition wonders why churches should continue to be able to violate the tax code and, moreover, see the tax exemption as tantamount to subsidizing political activism with which they may disagree.  And apparently they aren’t alone:

A July 2012 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 66 percent of Americans believe churches or other houses of worship should not endorse political candidates and the majority of Americans (54%) say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.

The concerns of the Coalition cannot be dismissed as merely anti-religious agitation.  Its executive director adds “Holding these organizations to the same filing standards as other charitable and educational institutions ensures that the almost $100 billion being donated to religious organizations is actually going to help those who need it.”

But for all that there are substantial concerns about their proposal.  First, churches do tend to be beneficial to our society notwithstanding the exceptions and the politicizers.  Then, forcing the deacons at fifty-member First Baptist Church to fill out pages of disclosures to the IRS is not a step in the right direction.  Moreover, it’s generally a good thing to keep the state from detailed prying into the affairs of a church.

There are some alternatives to the proposals of the Secular Coalition. First, churches could voluntarily steer clear of overt political speech and activity. (Yeah, right. But we can always hope.)  Second, the IRS could investigate and sanction some big churches from each side of the political spectrum, a classic way of getting the attention of smaller fish. Or the Coalition’s vision of enforcement could be applied only to churches of certain (large) size, similar to some other federal laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act.  If governmental entities deepen in their budgetary stress over the coming years don’t expect this issue to just go away.

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10 Comments

Filed under Church and State, Culture Wars, evangelical politics

10 responses to “What Hath Pulpit Freedom Sunday Wrought?

  1. Thanks for commenting on the Secular Coalition’s press release.

    As was mentioned in the earlier post on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, it seems like a pretty dumb idea to invite greater public scrutiny and criticism of the tax benefits churches and pastors receive. My guess is that a significant part of the general public is not aware that pastors can exclude a decent amount of income via the housing allowance, double-dip on certain deductions, and even opt out of Social Security (which the Secular Coalition press release does not mention). As an added bonus, a sizable housing allowance pushes down taxable income which in turn puts you in a lower tax bracket (if you’re not there already) and increases your ability to utilize and/or maximize various credits. Good stuff if you can get it.

    I like your idea of the IRS enforcing the prohibition on political campaigning on a few large churches across the political spectrum. That would be interesting. And “churches could voluntarily steer clear of overt political speech and activity” was a pretty funny joke. (At least we shouldn’t have too much trouble with that in our little neck of the ecclesiastical woods.) If only more churches believed in limited government – for churches, that is.

    Assuming trends in religious affiliation continue, with fewer people becoming members or maintaining membership in churches (and synagogues, though the trend may be going the other way with mosques), it wouldn’t surprise me if at least some of what the Secular Coalition advocates gains traction with the general public. 990s for churches would be a real bear, to say the least.

    • “churches could voluntarily steer clear of overt political speech and activity” was a pretty funny joke”

      Yes, well I do try to keep the humor flowing.

      Notice how nobody wants to tax the Amish? But payback/retribution is par for the course for political combatants

      • JimHeetderks

        The Amish seem pretty consistent, however misguided. But our Pulpit Freedom brethren don’t seem to understand that the meddling goes both ways. If churches (as churches) interfere in the affairs of the civil government, the civil government will return the favor. How can it be otherwise?

        Far better it would be for these men to stick with things that really are scandalous and momentous – God became man by being born of a virgin, was crucified, died, and was buried, and rose again, and so on. It’s not to their credit that they have exposed in such a public way their deficiencies in understanding with respect to the government of both church and state.

      • So let’s not shriek about being persecuted for Christ when it’s really just political payback. Of course the shrieking itself can be a political tactic which is then met with shrieking from the other side. And on it goes.

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