The simple phrase “All men are created equal” has been called an immortal declaration, and perhaps the single phrase of the United States Revolutionary period with the most grand continuing importance even though after 236 years there is still inequality in America. It is ironic that Thomas Jefferson wrote those prescient words because if he were alive today he may be astounded that despite his “wall of separation” between government and religion in the Constitution, this country still gives preferential treatment to religious organizations to the detriment of the country’s economic well-being and at the expense of taxpayers. It is time to stop forcing taxpayers to fund religion with the ridiculous tax-exempt status to bring a semblance of truth this country’s “immortal declaration” asserted over two centuries ago.
Religious organizations are given consent to declare themselves non-profit charitable organizations by simply signing and filing 501 (c)(3) papers with the Internal Revenue Service. They, unlike other non-profits, are exempt from keeping accounting records, and the only requirement to be exempt from paying taxes is that they refrain from endorsing, preaching against, or supporting any candidate from the pulpit. However, religious groups around the country break their agreement with the IRS with impunity, and it has prompted a group in Wisconsin to say enough.
The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the IRS for failing to audit thousands of churches that violated federal tax law by engaging in partisan advocacy. The lawsuit alleges, “The Internal Revenue Service, under the direction of the Defendant Shulman, has followed and continues to follow a policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions of §501(c)(3) against churches and other religious organizations. As a result, in recent years, churches and religious organizations have been blatantly and deliberately flaunting the electioneering restrictions of §501(c)(3), including during the presidential election year of 2012.” Back in October, in a flagrant violation of 501(c)(3) rules, over 1,600 preachers engaged in Pulpit Freedom Sunday and actively campaigned from the pulpit to challenge the IRS rules that allow them to leach money from taxpayers.
A spokesperson for Freedom From Religion Foundation said, “This looks like the only way to get some action out of the IRS,” and that “the tipping point was the braggadocio of 1,600 pastors claiming they endorsed from the pulpit. The number of complaints we’ve received has been escalating, and we have no explanation from the IRS. This is our way of finding out what is going on.” Indeed, what is going on is so-called men of god breaking the agreement they made with the IRS with impunity and it is happening all across America with increasing regularity. In Virginia and Pennsylvania for example, at polling places religious voter guides titled, “An Impartial, Non-Partisan Guide to the November 6th Election“ were openly displayed that asserted President Obama opposes “religious liberty” and the “appointment of conservative justices,” while claiming Republican candidate Willard Romney supports both. The religious voter guide also says President Obama supports “open homosexuality in the military” and “government control of healthcare,” while Romney opposes both. The guides were from the legislative arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute and the state’s affiliate of the Family Research Council (FRC) and Focus on the Family headed by evangelical fanatic Tony Perkins. The guides represent campaigning at a polling place, and besides violating election laws, because churches are 501(c)(3) entities, they violate IRS rules.
The sense of entitlement by a wide swath of Christian religions has exceeded just living off taxpayer largesse and tax-exempt status. A deceptive initiative on Florida’s ballot last week is another sign that regardless the special privileges churches enjoy, they can always find other ways to subvert the Constitution and bilk taxpayers out of their hard-earned tax dollars to fund their tax-exempt endeavors.
Amendment 8, a Republican-backed measure aimed at repealing a constitutional ban on using state money “directly or indirectly” to fund any “church, sect or religious domination” which includes religious schools, failed to garner 60% of the vote and failed. The sole purpose of the Republican religious measure was implementing a voucher system to allow Christians to use taxpayer money for tuition at private religious schools. The amendment carried the deceptive “religious liberty” title, but enough Floridians were literate enough to read the amendment and reject it for what it was; forced taxpayer funding of religion. It is a double insult to taxpayers because besides being forced to pay for someone else’s religious instruction, the religious schools are exempt from paying taxes on their income. It is similar to Willard Romney’s use of tithes that benefited him and the Mormon cult.
In Romney’s case, he gets to write off his membership dues (tithes) to enter the Mormon Temple on his tax return, and the church that invests his tithes in extensive for-profit business ventures is exempt from paying taxes on the tithes and the profits from businesses owned by the church. If one adds the exemption from paying property taxes and double-dipping by church clergy, the local community, state, and federal government are all deprived of much-needed revenue. Churches all benefit from law enforcement, fire fighters, and infrastructure funded by taxpayers and they should not be exempt from contributing to fund the services they use. Proponents of taxpayer-funded church and clergy entitlements claim religious organizations do important work in their communities and deserve to benefit from other Americans’ tax dollars, but all things being equal, they do not do as important work as nurses, police officers, firefighters, or school teachers who pay their fair share in income and property taxes. In fact, one can safely argue that many religious groups do untold damage in their communities by opposing gay rights and women’s right to choose as well as forcing their beliefs on secular entities like public schools. It is little wonder the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit against the IRS to force them to enforce 501(c)(3) rules, but there is a simpler solution than suing the IRS to pressure them to do their job.
Regardless if religious organizations abuse their agreement with the IRS or not, it is long past the time to end their government-sanctioned and taxpayer-funded entitlements once and for all. There is no reasonable excuse to allow any church, or preacher, to avoid paying their fair share like every other American, and if they do not have a tax-exempt agreement with the IRS, they are free to preach from the pulpit to their heart’s content. Another hazard of allowing tax-exempt organizations and their preachers to campaign from the pulpit is the risk of becoming outlets for tax-deductible, unreported campaign money. Political contributions are not tax-deductible, but if donors give to churches that campaign for a specific candidate or party, they can write off their campaign contributions giving them preferential treatment over every American, but that is what churches expect; preferential treatment for…what is it they do?
Many Christian churches serve a useful purpose, do not campaign from the pulpit, and contribute to their communities, and maybe they should be commended for doing what Jesus commanded. However, they should not be treated any differently than any other American who volunteers, donates, or helps their community and still pay taxes. The Constitution is explicit about two things; religion must be kept separate from the government, and every American is equal, and until every church, temple, and preacher is held to the same standards as a carpenter, waitress, or window washer, America will remain steeped in inequality and communities, states, and the federal government will be deprived of much needed revenue. America gives enough preferential treatment and entitlements to the rich, corporations, churches, and the oil industry, and in the spirit of equality, it is time for Americans to demand that the government ends all subsidies and insist that churches, like the wealthy, start paying their fair share.