The Pulpit and the IRS
The City of Houston has apparently subpoenaed several pastors in the city area regarding the text of sermons that were given that may possibly have crossed the line between “preaching to the faithful” and “political advocacy”.
The Right-o-Sphere is responding predictably.
After decades of warnings on the right about liberal politicians threatening religious liberty, a Democratic mayor in Texas is now subpoenaing pastors to turn over their sermons.
Several outside groups suspect Houston’s government wants to use the subpoenas to harass and publicly shame Christian pastors.
A couple of things.
First, how do you publicly shame people for saying things that they publicly said from a rather privileged position? Doesn’t that seem to be a weird complaint?
Second, I would like to point out that these decades of warnings on the right were notably… ah… lacking back when the IRS, under the George W Bush administration, investigated the fairly liberal All Saints Church here in Pasadena. That investigation was eventually closed with no wrongdoing found.
One of Southern California’s largest and most liberal congregations, All Saints came under IRS scrutiny after a sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election by a guest speaker, the Rev. George F. Regas. In his sermon, Regas, the church’s former rector, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-presidential candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry.
Regas did not endorse either candidate, saying that “good people of profound faith” could support either one. But he strongly criticized the war in Iraq and said that Jesus would have told Bush that his preemptive war strategy in Iraq “has led to disaster.”
A letter from the IRS arrived in June 2005 stating that the church’s tax-exempt status was in jeopardy. Federal law prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns and elections.
Second, The IRS’s charter in this particular sphere (as I understand it) is to police non-profit organizations claiming to be religious organizations who are in fact political advocacy organizations.
In fact, the IRS is doing this because they’ve allegedly been sued to make sure that they actually follow this charter. “Angry Atheist” rhetoric aside…
As long as we treat religious organizations differently from political advocacy organizations, in the law, then the IRS is stuck doing this job… or to be more precise… somebody is, but since the IRS is in charge of the tax deal it doesn’t make much sense to have somebody else do it. Everybody hates the IRS anyway, so there’s that. That is an inevitable consequence of our tax code. Equal protection under the law, I personally believe, is the fundamental underpinning principle of the Constitution. If a political advocacy organization is treated one way under tax law, and your non-political advocacy organization starts acting like one, it would violate equal protection for the government to treat you like a Church… or like anything else for that matter.
The letter of the law, again as I understand it, is that you are welcome to make pulpit speeches about whatever you want, but if you cross the line from “about matters of conscience” into “baldly political statements” you’ve crossed the line from “teaching your flock about your church’s principles” to “telling people they need to sign this petition”.
In other words, you can say, “No good Christian would accept a gay marriage as a proper marriage in the eyes of this Church”, and your congregation can go out and vote against gay marriage. You can say, “Secular gay marriage is a detriment to the social order of the country” and you’re dancing closer to the line but you’re still well on the side of the political advocacy angels. When you say, “Brother Amos is outside right now collecting signatures and we need 25,000 of them to challenge this godless law and I want all of you to go out and sign it” you’re not preaching religion any more, you’re doing straight up political advocacy.
Do I think this is a reasonable line to draw? Well, that depends. Drawing the line here versus there has different drawbacks, but regardless of where you draw the line, you’re going to have people straddling the line.
Do I think the law has to be drawn somewhere? Oh, certainly. The alternative is to grant the same privileged status that religious organizations have to, well, everybody else, get rid of the income tax altogether, or revoke the privileged status religious organizations have in regards to the tax code. Whether or not I believe that any of those three alternatives are preferable to the status quo, I will go out on a limb and say that they are all flatly politically impossible, so like it or not we’re riding this tiger.
Which one do I prefer, if I had my druthers? Well, anyone who is a practicing Christian should know what Jesus said about the affair
And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
Of course, anyone suggesting that would be tarred with the secular humanist angry atheist brush, nowadays.
Do I expect that people in both parties like to draw the line somewhere and then jump across it without penalty while bringing the hammer down on anybody who thinks differently from they do when they’re the ones with access to the hammer? You betcha.
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