Sunday, February 14, 2016

Should Religious Establishments be Allowed to Freely Express their Political Opinions?



Election years for the President of the United States symbolizes a time for American to express their opinions on various issues and help shape the agenda for the next Commander in Chief. This year, the American public has placed emphasis on immigration reform, handling the global conflict with ISIS, and the possible continuance of the Affordable Care Act. However, what happens when your voice can't be heard at the polls?

American places of worship are among some of the most prominent entities that cannot participate in the 2016 election. According to the rules of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), churches and other places of worship are charitable organizations that receive tax exempt status (Section 501(c)(3)). To qualify as a charitable organization, an organization’s purpose must fulfill one of the following goals: “relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.” A downside to qualifying for this exemption is that “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 executive public office.” This exemption stems from the Constitution Framers intentions of keeping religious and governmental institutions separate. The IRS does allow for religious places of worship to perform “certain voter education activities conducted in a non partisan manner.”

Matt Barber, a constitutional law political analyst, feels that American churches and other places of worship should play a greater role in American politics. Barber believes that righteousness and morality, not economic or military factors are the primary strengths for a nation. Those strengths can be derived from the religions practiced within a nation. He accuses the United States in participating a “religious cleansing campaign” backed by the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United are using this provision to encourage governments to be critical of religions. In his final statements in the article, he encourages religious groups to directly endorse candidates who share their beliefs and defy the tax exempt restrictions set forth by the IRS. Barber notes that the IRS has no mechanism to take away a church’s tax exempt status. Barber also believes that pastors can help encourage participation in the American electorate on several types of issues, urge people to register and vote, and distribute guides.

Americans United, a group advocating the separation of church and state, was understandably upset at Barber’s suggestion. The AU also believe they are following the intentions of Thomas Jefferson, who wanted no intersection of duties between religions and the central government. Jefferson and James Madison believed that no lawmaker could be unbiased on the matter of determining which religions were acceptable for the young nation. Simon Brown believes that while the phrase separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution, the idea for separate institutions was a popular belief of the Founders. The AU also believe that the IRS has the power to take away an establishment’s tax exempt status and cites the Church at Pierce Creek as a prior example. In 1992, the Church ran newspaper ads that told people to not vote for Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. As a result, it lost its tax exempt status in 1995.

I believe that places of worship do not have a right to express their opinions under the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. These important clauses from the 1st and 14th Amendments demand that no religion be held superior to any other, advance the practice of certain religions, or hinder the progress of others in any federal or state jurisdictions. In addition, the eventual winner of the election would in good conscience make sure to appease all constituents that voted for them. If a certain religious group supports a campaign, the newly elected President. would be tempted to create legislation that supports religion. This action as declared in the 1947 Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court at that time ruled that “no tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions.”


So what ultimately is the right path in your opinion? Should American places of worship express their opinions in this crucial election or is it more important churches to keep their tax exempt status?

7 comments:

Houtan Bozorghadad said...

I have a different perspective on this issue. Churches should have the right to say whom they are rooting for president and other political issues because secular organizations are able to proclaim their political stance so they choose, so refusing a churches ability to do that would be an unfair establishment of religion. That’s not the issue here, the key issue is that (Section 501 (c)(3)) prohibits both religious and secular organizations from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign,” so if an organization wants to publicly state their political stance, then they should not apply for the tax exemption. If people or organizations have a problem with that, then it they should try to change this legislation that the IRS implements.

Rebecca J said...

I agree with Jim that religious institutions should not be able to hold a bigger role in elections. While all religious institutions would have the same ability to participate during the campaign, religious that support a candidate who drops out or loses will be at a disadvantage. Additionally, as Jim points out, the religion that supports the eventual winner of the presidential election will have a large advantage. Presidential candidates aim to appeal to specific constituencies and have to work to maintain their support throughout their term if they want to win reelection. Therefore, the religious groups that support the President will likely become favored more by the government even if not in a direct way. This would create a large threat of creating a government supported religion, even if it was not outrightly stated. Furthermore, religion can have enough power in elections by the voting power of individuals. The free exercise of religious institutions is not eliminated by their categorization as a 501-c3 organization because they can still participate in elections through the citizens that practice their religion and vote. For these reasons, I do not think that religious organizations and institutions should start to play a bigger role in elections and campaigns.

Maddie G said...

I agree that there should be a separation between church and state but I don't think that this should stop non-profit or religious organizations from participating in elections in some way. These organizations have an interest in the public policy outcomes of the next administration and therefore, should be allowed to voice their opinion and endorse a candidate. I think that's more of a free speech issue than an establishment issue. When it comes to donating to campaigns, though, I agree that 501c3's should probably not be allowed because that, in my opinion would be an establishment of religion because the government would be using tax policy to further religion.

Caroline S. said...

I agree with Jim's decision that allowing 501c3's from participating in elections. I think there is a real fear surrounding the establishment of a particular religion if the President of the United States were to be elected due to a particular religious sect. However, I do think that religious leaders should be able to encourage their constituents to vote and to take an active role in public policy decisions. However, I think that they should approach this from a purely neutral standpoint- they should encourage participation, however organizations should not be able to express preference for a specific candidate. Our founders came to this country to avoid the majority tyranny over the minority and I believe that religious participation in elections could very easily jeopardize the separation we have created between Church and State.

Matthew L. said...

Although I view this a tough issue to navigate due to the fact that we can not say what would happen without testing it, I believe that I agree with you on the basis of favoritism once the elected official takes office. If religious institutions have the ability to act politically, then the result can lead to large amounts of corruption. For example, if we were to take a local town that had two candidates running for mayor, and one got the backing of leaders of a large group of faith, and thus was able to have a bigger following as those leaders had groups underneath them looking for them to advice. The problem arises when this political leader is faced with an issue regarding this faith group while in office. Would we be able to say, without a doubt, that the leader’s decision was made without any regard to his relationship with this group? Simply, no, we would be unable to state the decision without questioning any bias on the part of the elected official. Although we can not control what is said behind closed doors within the group’s traditional worship services, we are able to control how publicly proclaimed the support is for a certain candidate, and to make sure that there is less of a chance for corruption, we must control that facet.

Thomas M. said...

Religion is one of the largest influences upon humanity and should not play a role in politics. If the leader of a religion came out in support of a political candidate, it can be assumed that there would be many practitioners of that religion who follow their lead. If a voter believes that someone has a connection to a higher power that they believe in, then the next step is to think that their political opinions are correct as well. Also, once it became clear that religious groups were becoming influential in politics, their would be some level of corruption as political groups would give funds to these religions in exchange for the backing of their candidate. The law clearly lays out that religious groups are not able to participate in political proceedings and I think that it should stay that way, we have enough corrupt politicians, I do not wish to see a large number of corrupt religious officials politically.

nick paray said...

Disregarding my firm belief that the IRS should be abolished and the tax code simplified, the code of the IRS still holds civil and legal authority. Religious entities are tax exempt, and the law prevents these tax exempt organizations from holding public views on political matters. Now, the question arises of the constitutionality of such law. Proponents of the churches interests view the free exercise clause as giving them the right to express their opinion. Individually, the members of the congregation should be allowed to express their views, but as a group they represent an organization that is held to a standard set by their benefactor. The religious aspect should be irrelevant, as the act in question does not pertain to religious exercise in any way. Once the free exercise argument is thrown away, there is no legal basis to avoid an established law.