By Tom Rhodes, 10/8/2012
Last Sunday was Pulpit Freedom Sunday. As Libertarians we should celebrate the bravery of the hundreds of pastors who thumbed their nose at the IRS and preached about politicians and politics in defiance to the government. The idea that the first amendment allows the state to regulate the speech of the church is absurd. The entire Bill of Rights it is a limit on the government not the people or any organization which they form and belong. Pastors not the government should determine what is said from the pulpit.
Statist arguments from those who say to pastors, "If you want to exercise your right to free speech, just give up your tax-exempt status" are illogical and absurd on their face. It would be the same as telling everyone that in order to deduct your homes mortgage interest from your taxes you must give up your right to be free from warrantless searches of your home. The idea is that because the government is in essence paying for your house with a tax deduction it has the right to search your house any time for any reason or for no reason at all. That idea is invalid on many fronts.
It makes as much sense as saying, "if you want to maintain your right to a jury trial, just give up your tax-exempt status." Just like a jury trial, and the right to keep and bear arms, and the right not to testify against yourself, are all rights not privileges grated by the government which can be taken away based on an arbitrary tax classification, the right to free speech and religion is just that, constitutionally protected rights, not privileges that can be revoked by dangling the tax-exempt status of a pastor's church over his head. The IRS rule against free speech for pastors should be declared unconstitutional.
Tax cuts or exemptions do not "subsidize" religion or anything else. An IRS tax-exempt status to a church is not a subsidy unless all money belongs to the government. Last year the US Supreme Court rejected that idea. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn. "Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding STO tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents' contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector's hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the Arizona State Treasury." It is clear that the government has no automatic right to a church's money because a pastor doesn't give up his right to free speech. There is no right for the government to be free from the church or from the beliefs of the citizens; rather the government is restricted from restricting free speech and the free exercise of religion. Our constitution doesn't restrict churches or pastors or the people, it restricts the government.
Whether a group is formed to promote model aviation (the AMA) or promote doctors (the AMA) or promote motorcycle racing (the AMA), or promote management training (the AMA), or to market marketing (the AMA), or to give music awards (the AMA), or promote a religion, or promote a group of workers, they should all have the same rules applied equally, and all have their rights respected equally. Any other position is unjust. Charities are non-profits and have been outside the legitimate tax base since the founding of our nation. Our government has no more right to a church's money because its pastor won't give up his constitutionally protected right to free speech, than it has the right to curb the speech of any other non-profit, like the AMA, ACLU, PETA, VFW, or AFL-CIO.
If you think that because an individual receives a tax deduction for contributions to a church as being a benefit that justifies restricting the freedom of speech from the pulpit, why isn't that claim as true for any other organization that you can receive a tax deduction when you make a donation. Should the United Way have its free speech squelched? Why should churches be treated any differently?
Union dues are tax deductable and unions are tax exempt, if churches can't promote or endorse a candidate without losing their tax exempt status why can unions? I know the IRS classifies churches as 501(C)3 organizations and Unions as 501(C)5 organizations, but it is illogical, absurd, and reprehensible to limit the speech rights of a group of people for some arbitrary classification by the government; especially when it is the government and not the people or any assembly of people that is constitutionally limited.
If you support the idea that pastors should not be allowed to endorse or financially support candidates then you must support the idea unions should not be allowed to endorse candidates. As libertarians we can and do support all forms of free speech, even that of pastors to endorse and criticize candidates from the pulpit. Last Sunday 1600 pastors were brave enough to stand up to statism, we salute all of you who took up the challenge. Our current tax system is now being used to control and restrict our constitutionally protected freedoms, it is time to scrap the entire thing and start over.