Yesterday, I brushed up against the church/state issue in the United States, when I discussed a church that had chosen to take a stand against our immigration laws and offer sanctuary to an illegal alien. A few people delved into the larger issue, and some said that my suggestion the church lose its tax-exempt status as an “open assault on the church,” even citing “the power to tax is the power to destroy.”
This got me thinking into the whole issue of church-state relations, especially in relation to their tax-exempt status.
As I understand it, the idea of churches being exempt from taxes has two purposes. For one, it gives them a certain level of independence from government interference, reinforcing the First Amendment “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment. Further, by making them financially independent from the government, it promotes the “no establishment” clause by keeping them from becoming dependent on government largesse.
The more subtle point here is that the government is, indirectly, subsidizing these churches. Not only are they exempt from taxation, but gifts to churches are tax-deductible for the giver. In essence, it makes more sense to give one’s money to a church (or any other charitable, tax-exempt organization) because it can end up lowering one’s overall tax burden.
So, why should churches benefit from this? The notion seems to be that the government won’t endorse any particular religion, but in general favors the notion that the people be religious. They seem to think that religious citizens are preferable to non-religious ones.
Even though I am a dyed-in-the-wool born-again agnostic, I tend to agree with that. I’ve found that for the most part, people with a modicum of religious inclination tend to be a bit more responsible. I have several theories why this is so, and it’s probably a combination of many of them and many more I haven’t considered, but it seems a fairly good indicator.
(Yes, there are exceptions. Certain so-called “religions” like Scientology challenge this position, and extremists of many denominations and faiths are often more trouble than average folks. That’s why I called it an “indicator” and not a rule.)
So, then, why would I advocate stripping the Adalberto United Methodist Church of its tax-exempt status? Why would I, as Mac Lorry points out, wish to apply “the power to destroy” against this church?
Because that tax-exempt status comes at a price. In order to remain free of taxation, a church (or any other charitable organization) needs to avoid getting too involved in politics. They cannot endorse candidates, they cannot lobby lawmakers on issues, and they cannot attach themselves to any political party.
In this case, the church in question is choosing to not just meddle in a political question (the issue of illegal immigration), but to take a firm stand and defy existing federal laws. They are not questioning the law, simply saying that they will not comply with it.
And since I first stumbled across this story, a lot more information has come to light. Digger has been watching the story for some time, and it turns out that Elvira Arellano isn’t just another illegal alien — she’s been on the forefront of the amnesty issue for some time, and been quite upfront about her own status as an illegal alien.
This is a very minor issue, but the principle it challenges must be preserved. Their action needs must invoke a reaction.
However, it must be a very careful, very measured response. This is hardly a call for a Clinton-era response, like the armed assault to return Elian Gonzalez to Cuba or the wholesale butchery of the Branch Davidians or the senseless body count of the Ruby Ridge standoff. The legal challenge to the church’s tax-exempt status sends just the right signal: They can take this position if they wish, but not while continuing to benefit from government subsidization of their continued practices.
I would dearly love to see the church’s lawyer in court fighting the move. “Your honor, my clients are being brutally repressed from exercising their First Amendment rights by the government refusing to continue their subsidizing of their church!”
As long as it’s not before the 9th Circuit or Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, that is. Then all bets are off.