President Trump is not a particularly religious man but he likes to pander to the evangelical Christians who helped get him elected. He tells them what they love to hear – that their religious freedom is “under threat,” and he’s going to eliminate the threat.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Religious liberty is alive and well in the United States of America. The First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion and speech to all and those fundamental constitutional freedoms are not under any threat.
Nowhere in the Constitution, however, is there any guarantee that churches and religious institutions enjoy tax exempt status. Ordinary individuals and business entities are forced to pay taxes. If you or I own a home we have to pay property taxes. If we earn income we have to pay income taxes. All businesses, partnerships and corporations are obligated to pay taxes whether we like it or not – but not churches – they’re allowed to compete unfairly.
Where, if not in the Constitution, do churches and religious institutions claim any unfettered right to be free from paying their fair share of taxes on property and income just like all other individuals and entities? The fact is that tax exemption is a privilege, a gift allowed them under the laws of all 50 states and the federal government.
Tax exemption is not a fundamental constitutional right; it’s a privilege. As with any legally recognized privilege there might be reasonable rules and restrictions which must be complied with if the privileged entity wishes to retain the privilege. On the federal level, for example, there is an IRS rule (rarely invoked) which provides that the tax exempt status privilege can be lost if the privileged entity, a church for instance, crosses the line from religion into partisan politics.
In theory then, if a church or religious institution engages in partisan politics such as endorsing candidates from the pulpit and actively participating in elections – activities with which it enjoys a fundamental Constitutional right -- it should be required to pay taxes just like the rest of us peons. It enjoys a constitutional right to engage in pulpit politics, but no right to be free from taxation.
Not surprisingly, many churches and religious institutions don’t like the remote possibility that their privileged tax exemption status might be lost if they engage in partisan politics. They insist on eating their cake and having it too. So this week President Trump promised at the National Prayer Breakfast to give them free reign to engage in partisan pulpit politics without fear of losing their generous gift of tax exempt status. He vowed to get rid of any restrictions on their privilege.
Can you imagine situations in which religious institutions can continue to enjoy the privilege of not paying any taxes while at the same time spending their considerable resources to create Political Action Committees (PAC’s), openly engaging in influencing partisan elections, and permitting their donors to get tax breaks for political contributions? Talk about mixing partisan politics with religion – this would take it to the absolute limit.
Why not just eliminate all tax exempt status privileges, Mr. President? Or why not give the privilege of tax exempt status to everyone? It’s not fair that churches can avoid paying their fair share of taxes while the rest of us are paying through the nose. Why should the religious businesses get special treatment that makes them filthy rich while the rest of us are forced to struggle under the yolk of taxation?
I, and most of my fellow Americans, say that loss of the unfair tax exempt status privilege is a proper consequence for churches engaging in partisan pulpit politics.