This week our new president promised to lift the Johnson Amendment, the rule that prohibits religious leaders from endorsing or campaigning against political candidates. This new administration believes pastors and priests should be able to throw their support—publicly—behind political candidates. On this, you may be surprised to know, I wholeheartedly agree. If corporate CEOs and celebrities can endorse a political candidate, I see no reason a religious leader shouldn’t do so. Freedom of speech extends to us all and religious leaders must necessarily grapple with the implications of political policy on their system of belief. They should be able to share their views with their congregation and their followers. However, and here I suspect is where my views diverge with our new president, churches should not be exempt from paying taxes.
I am aware of the charitable work done by some churches and some congregations, but there are already provisions in place for establishing nonprofit status for charitable organizations. There is no reason a church could not file as a charitable organization if their primary work is to provide housing for the homeless or food for children living in poverty or any number of charitable acts. The organization would simply need to abide by all the rules and regulations set out for secular organizations doing the same work including, of course, the prohibition of endorsing candidates. Because that’s something no one mentions when speaking of the Johnson Amendment. It wasn’t targeted at religious organizations, but at every group who receives tax-exempt status. Basically, the amendment states that no one who is being subsidized by the federal government through tax-exemption ought to be using that status to engage in political campaigns. If the amendment were lifted, any nonprofit organization would be free to campaign for candidates of their choosing. That means when you make a donation to, say, The American Red Cross or your local art museum, a portion of those funds might be used to create campaign literature or to place advertising for a particular candidate. I don’t know about you, but when I donate money to a museum I expect them to invest in art and community outreach and not in politics. It’s a clear conflict and that’s why there was very little debate over the amendment when it was first passed in to law.
There really is no reason to provide tax-exempt status for churches. It is far too easy to establish a church. Anyone can do it with minimal legal help and paperwork. It requires nothing more than filing articles of formation detailing some basic criteria: a regular meeting place, a few congregants, some doctrine of belief, and a set of bylaws. All of these things are open to broad interpretation and are rarely scrutinized by anyone. In one of the few cases where the courts did scrutinize a church’s tax-exempt status (The Church of Scientology), they came down on the side of the Scientologists and now that organization avoids paying millions of dollars in taxes each year. That’s because it’s very difficult to declare that an organization is not a church when its leaders claim it is. This is understandable as any set of beliefs might be branded religious as long as there is some connection to spirituality. That connection can be tenuous, but it still holds. We have the freedom to worship (or not) as we see fit in this country. If the court is able to declare that one religion is somehow less worthy of special status than another religion, we’ve entered into a territory of religious tests that goes against the very fabric of our nation. This would be wrong. Suppose the IRS determined that Baptists and Catholics could retain tax-exempt status, but Unitarians and Episcopalians would need to pony up? Or perhaps the IRS could tax only those churches that preach the prosperity gospel—you know, the one that says prayer will make you wealthy. Or maybe churches whose pastors make more than $70,000 a year should be taxed. You can see where the slope gets mighty slippery mighty quickly.
It makes far better sense to eliminate altogether the automatic tax exemption for churches. Preachers and pastors and priests could participate in the political process to their heart’s content, but come tax time they would, in the words of Jesus, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Religious leaders who would rather use their influence for charitable causes could establish charities based on the rules already in place. Granted, it’s a slightly higher bar to clear and those leaders would be unable to endorse or campaign against specific candidates, but that just puts them on equal footing with all the other charitable organizations in the country. That seems a fair and just solution. Also, it would be a boon to our country’s coffers if some of these incredibly wealthy pastors would cough up their fair share for the good of us all. It is shameful to see men in custom-made suits in front of mega-church congregations with professional sound and lighting crews and coffee shops in the church lobby strutting around like egomaniacal peacocks in the name of God. I don’t buy it and neither should the federal government.
The answer to this conundrum is clear: leave the Johnson Amendment in place, but lift the tax-exempt status for churches. It is better for us all.