During his acceptance speech on Thursday night, Donald Trump’s only mention of religious liberty was to condemn the portion of the tax code that prevents churches from advocating for political candidates. Except the way he put it was a bit different:
An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.
Technically they’re not prohibited from advocating political views, just endorsements of candidates.
Here’s the full explanation from the IRS:
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.
Thankfully the regulation is unenforced. But its presence on the books has a huge and unconstitutional chilling effect on free speech by religious groups.
Of all the churches to make the case for the stupidity of this draconian restriction, who would have expected the first one after Trump’s speech to be Tim Kaine’s Roman Catholic Church in Virginia!
That’s exactly what happened, inadvertently. Journalist Betsy Klein covers the 2016 race for CNN. She co-wrote a story about Kaine’s visit to St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Richmond.
She noted that the church tweeted out its congratulations at 9:40 PM on July 22, writing, “Congratulations to our member Tim Kaine on the Vice President selection. We are all very proud!!!” The tweet included a link to a Facebook post. However, not only was that tweet deleted sometime after it went up, the entire Twitter account was taken down.
What a great example of the stupidity and danger of this IRS rule. Kaine’s own home parish can’t even congratulate him without violating it.
Another point about the rule. Saying that churches don’t need to endorse candidates, or saying that you personally don’t feel the need to endorse candidates, in no way justifies telling other people what they can and can’t do according to their conscience.
As a confessional Lutheran, I happen to personally agree with Nicholas G. Hahn III of the Detroit News that the pulpit is not for politicking. But religious freedom doesn’t mean only permitting things that you agree with. If other religious traditions see no conflict between politics and the pulpit, that’s their business.
Don Byrd of the Baptist Joint Committee [that used to be] For Religious Liberty wrote:
[F]ar from being a threat to religious liberty, the ban serves to protect houses of worship from needless and harmful entanglement with political operations. It safeguards the integrity of our tax exemption and political finance systems. In short, it is good for both church and state. It also is simply a matter of fairness: other 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations may not endorse political candidates without risking that status. Why should churches be treated any differently?
Why should religious institutions have religious freedom that non-religious institutions don’t have? I don’t know, why don’t you consult the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.
It’s not about whether you personally think it’s a “needless and harmful entanglement” for a congregation to say “attaboy” to its member running for high office but whether you have the right to tell a completely different religious group how they get to practice their religion. You don’t. And punishing people with taxation for having a different doctrinal approach than you do is not how religious freedom works.
Pulpit freedom may not be the biggest religious liberty threat facing believers in the United States, but it’s not insignificant. This is something on which Tim Kaine and Donald Trump can and should agree.