Sunday, February 15, 2015

Electioneering Issues May Be Creeping Up On Us

Since the recent shift in Congress to all Republican control in both the Senate and House of Representatives, there has been a bill proposed, titled H. R. 153, by Representative Walter Jones Jr. [R-NC] that would allow for electioneering practices for churches and other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups.

Currently as most of us know, there is a legal prohibition of electioneering for such organizations and/or entities.  This current prohibition is termed the "Johnson Amendment," which was established in 1954.  For those of us who are either unfamiliar with electioneering or just need a quick refresh, electioneering occurs when an organization publicly endorses or opposes a political candidate who is up for (re)election.

The American Humanist Association who, under this proposed bill, would also be allowed to employ electioneering practices, is not happy that this would allow churches more free speech and "untold" influence in politics.  The AHA released a statement which says, "This is fundamentally un-American, and weakens the state of our democracy by giving religious leaders untold influence."

It is important, however, to keep in mind that the diction of the bill itself does not appear to favor religious organizations/churches.  The most relevant section of the bill to us is stated as follows: "Paragraph (3) of section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to list of exempt organizations) is amended by striking “, and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."  This wording demonstrates that all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups would truly be included, not just churches and other religious organizations.  The proposed bill can be viewed in its entirety here.

One of the biggest issues that people seem to have with this bill is that it would allow for churches and other religious organizations to practice electioneering while also receiving a tax deduction, which seems unfair and may appear to violate the Establishment Clause.  Most people, however, would not object to the fact that other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt groups would have this privilege as well.  As stated by Rep. Jones Jr., the purpose of the bill is "To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment."

Another concern is that by passing this bill into law, there would be more open support and/or opposition from churches and religious groups which creates a large window of opportunity for government and politics to be influenced and also for general coercion.

In my opinion, it would be wrong for Congress to pass this bill.  Not only does it slightly violate the Establishment Clause by providing religious groups with a tax benefit, it also allows for more religious influence in government and legislation, which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison explicitly told us to avoid.  Remember the wall of separation between church and state? It does not seem to be too high here.

Some might point out that the function of the bill is actually neutral, with which I am not inclined to totally disagree.  However, it seems to me that this bill functions more as a slippery slope rather than a totally neutral bill in practice, even if it may be neutral in regards to intent.  The author of the article I read said that passing this bill would "make things worse for secular Americans," and to an extent, I would agree.


Tommy S said...

I agree with Abby in this case. I think that allowing churches to participate in electioneering would be a violation of the establishment clause. By actively supporting or opposing a political candidate a Church would have undue influence on the political process. I especially agree with your appeal to Madison and Jefferson. This seems to me like something they would not have wanted although there are probably arguments that could be made that say that Madison and Jefferson would support this measure.

Nina N. said...

I think the difference between establishment and this case is that if this law were passed, then each religion and secular institutions would have equal access to do this. It is neutral in theory and practice but I think it violates the idea of separating church and state. I think it should not be passed because it would offer an even greater bridge than what already exists within human interaction.

Religion and law are already tightly intertwined through the practice of individuals. For example, if pastors are preaching a certain message, then their following may carry over these messages and belief to voting. Some politicians have also been explicit about their religion and the role it plays in their legal decision making. So it'd be wrong to say that churches and politics play no part in each other, but I don't think laws should be used to widen that connection.

Peter M said...

I disagree with the author's conclusion that this bill would establish religion. She first argues that the bill would "slightly violate the Establishment Clause by providing religious groups with a tax benefit." The bill isn't giving churches tax exemptions but just giving organizations that currently have tax exemptions the ability to endorse political candidates. I would assert that the current prohibition violates the "free exercise clause" by not allowing these organizations to freely speak about politics. I think the "state interest" to restrict the political influence religious organizations can have seems like an attempt for politicians to restrict religion in order to hang onto power which seems corrupt.

Sam Cohen said...

I agree with Abby, as churches and state tax exemptions are two things that should not be in the same sentence. The bill is allowing for the churches to receive tax exemptions and letting churches play a role in a process that the church has no business being in. The state should not be able to regulate or decide what churches can and cannot do in terms of political elections, which are public and non-religious in their nature. Further, providing them tax exemptions seems to be a clear violation of the First Amendment. And if it isn't, then what about temples? Mosques? I take issue with this bill for many of these reasons.

robert bryson said...

Campaign financing and public endorsement has become a very serious issue in the past few elections. The concern regarding organizations that can contribute "big money" to support a candidate is a legitimate one. Now, if we allow for tax-exempt organizations, religious or non-religious, to partake in the endorsement process than we are permitting these organizations to use untaxed resources in the political arena. The Freedom of Speech argument is very sincere, however it can also be used in a different manner. By allowing organizations in general as a whole to endorse or lobby for legislation than we must accept that their ability to contribute larger amounts of funding than an average citizen is actually restricting the majority of individual speech. Furthermore, these organizations, especially church or religious organizations, are made up of members from all areas of political affiliation. This means that those who contribute to the tax-exempt organization may be indirectly financing legislation for which they do not support and did not originally indent for their contributions to be made.

Adam Drake said...

I agree with Abby. By allowing churches to participate in electioneering without having to pay taxes creates an establishment of religion. Religious organizations who can pool together the most money have an opportunity to affect politics in a manner that they prefer. Who is to stop a billionaire from donating millions to a church on the terms that that the church donate it to an individual's campaign? This policy creates a tax free way to influence politics and further entangle church and state. It also gives an advantage the majority religions with more financial resources. This is privileging religion over secular groups in terms of state involvement, nonetheless.

Nneoma I. said...

I disagree with your analysis. Although it is important to keep the "wall of separation" between church and state, this bill does not directly target church organizations. Churches and other non profit organizations alike are exempt from participating in political campaigning an promotion of candidates. This takes away church leader's first amendment rights. Although the tax exemption is a "privilege" the government is using coercion as a tool to sensor these programs and communities. I believe the bill will restore freedom and equality amongst all non profit organizations.

Kristen B. said...

I also agree with Abby and do not think that church organizations should not be able to participate in political campaigning when they are receiving tax exemptions. In order for religion to be separated from governmental issues there needs to be strict rules governing church involvement in elections. Americans should not be influenced by their religious leaders when choosing their favorite electoral candidates. If congress passes this bill then the government will be acknowledging that religious views are intertwined in politics and establishing a religious role in our government.

Will P. said...

I agree with many of the comment associated with the issue of campaign election funds. The concept of giving religious organizations tax exemptions is may be a necessity for the societal benefits that come with that. However, I find there ability to fund and actively support a political candidate as a breach of the separation of church and state. The political process, and political agenda of a candidate should be representative of his personal opinions, and not be subject to coercion by the financial backers. As Nina mentioned, there is a already a connection between legislation and religion, and I agree that laws should not be used to strengthen it.