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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Freedom of speech for churches?

A recent “Politics and the Church” piece in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Bush woos the faithful with religious fervor”) offers a good example of how the news article format is being used to tell only one side of the “separation of church and state” story.

Chronicle religion writer Don Lattin starts with a list of cases where President Bush appeals to churches and the religious for support and where support for Bush is offered by churches and the religious. Lattin then turns for commentary to the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. But here the discussion is conducted, not in terms of the constitutional issues, but in terms of tax law.

The crux of the article reads:

Under Internal Revenue Service laws, churches and other religious organizations can lose their tax exempt status if they endorse political candidates.

Enforcement of that provision, however, is complicated by the fact that churches are free to speak out on political issues -- such as whether the government should outlaw abortion or gay marriage. And clergy are able to speak out for candidates if they do it as private individuals, not as representatives of their church.

"What's different this year is the Bush/Cheney campaign are initiating efforts to get churches to break the law by becoming centers of Bush campaign activity,'' said Lynn.

Churches are not just left free by tax law to speak on political issues, they have a First Amendment free speech RIGHT to speak on political issues. That same free speech right applies to the direct endorsement of political candidates. The First Amendment does not say “Congress shall pass no law abridging the freedom of speech, except regarding the endorsement of candidates by churches.”

As easily as Lattin found Reverend Lynn to speak against the participation of churches in politics, he could have found someone to speak out for the political rights of churches. (David Limbaugh recently wrote a book on the subject.) Obviously he does not want to go there, even though his discussion of the tax issue gets him close enough to the constitutional issue as to make it implicit! Instead, he contents himself with noting that the Bush Administration denies that it is putting any churches in violation of tax law, since it is sending its appeals out to congregation members directly. Yup, everybody agrees, it’s just a tax issue, all tied up with a bow on top.

Lattin then goes on to cite Lynn’s criticism of President Bush’s politicking with the Pope. “It’s incredible,” Lynn is quoted as saying about President Bush’s effort to get John Paul to reign in left wing Catholic bishops. “Bush is doing the very thing Kennedy vowed not to do.” But in fact the issue Lynn is concerned about is the opposite of the one that Kennedy addressed. Kennedy was Catholic while Bush is Methodist. The issue with Kennedy was whether HE was too under the influence of the pope. Bush, in contrast, is accused of trying to influence Pope John Paul II. American are supposed to worry now about the pope being influenced by the president? Why? Are we supposed to be Catholics before we are Americans? Lynn flips Kennedy on his head and calls it the same thing.

We should be able to count on a newspaper’s religion writer to note such a misrepresentation, and surely Lattin is knowledgeable enough to pick it up. He just doesn't let himself go there, presumably because, as with letting himself grasp the First Amendment, it wouldn't support his anti-Bush, anti-traditional religion, presumptions. Consciously or self-deludedly, Lattin is a model of meretricious reporting. Why am I not surprised that the Chronicle’s religion writer is an intellectually dishonest anti-religious bigot?

The unaddressed constitutional issue is subtle and important. Every claim of value or priority springs from some kind of comprehensive moral view, and at the level of abstraction at which the Constitution operates, all comprehensive moral views must be regarded equally as religions. There is traditional religion and there is secular religion. In these terms, President Bush’s politicking with Pope John Paul is no different than if Vice President Gore had gone politicking with the European leadership of Greenpeace, urging that American Greenpeace branches increase their support for his environmental policies.

As for what to do with the tax law tangle, cut the Gordian knot by eliminating tax exempt status for all churches and charities. American churches are sitting on vast resources of real estate and buildings that go horribly underused because churches cannot rent them out or even let them be used free of charge for any but non-profit purposes without risking their own tax exempt status. Instead of being a vital part of the community, tax exempt status forces churches to the sidelines. Tax exempt status for non-profits also violates the fundamental principle that the tax base should be broad so that tax rates can be low.

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