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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

End the tax exemptions for religions

The president and GOP want to go in the other direction to expand political speech.

Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and religious

Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and religious leaders, President Donald Trump signs an executive order in May to promote free speech and religious liberty. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / Mandel Ngan

It’s easy to see how people following the debate over the “tax reform” bill and its special tangential guest star, the Johnson Amendment, could be confused about houses of worship and political speech, so let’s set the record straight.

No law prohibits religious organizations from politicking. They can buy ads claiming Jesus thinks President Donald Trump is dandy and is glad the GOP is keeping ol’ Mike Pence handy, and the government can’t say a word. Temples and mosques can promote or attack politicians loudly and proudly. They can demand followers vote for or against candidates, and threaten damnation for those who disobey.

What a religious institution that wants to politic can’t do, thanks to the Johnson Amendment of 1954, is maintain tax-exempt status. Neither can colleges, charities or any nonprofits, nor should they.

Actually, no group or institution in the United States should have tax-exempt status, no matter how angelic (or demonic), but we’ll get to that in a sec.

Trump campaigned promising to get rid of the amendment, echoing the argument from many evangelicals that the ban is a denial of free speech rights. Once elected, Trump signed a meaningless executive order that instructed the Department of the Treasury not to penalize religious organizations for political speech it wouldn’t punish secular tax-exempt institutions for, which the amendment doesn’t allow anyway.

The original House version of the tax changes passed last month included a repeal of the Johnson Amendment. It was introduced to free up the realm of politics only to houses of worship, then amended to include any tax-exempt group. But it did not make the Senate version, and it fell out of the final bill. So the repeal is gone, but will likely come up again.

The first problem with such a change is that, once political parties realized they could make their contributions tax-exempt, unlimited and anonymous by funneling them through religious or other tax-exempt organizations, every contribution would come via the Church of Republican Principles God Digs or the Make-A-Wish-for-a-Democratic-Candidate Foundation.

But the bigger problem with letting tax-exempt organizations practice politics is the same pitfall that crops up anytime tax-exempt organizations are allowed to do anything: It forces those who do pay their taxes to support causes or organizations they might not want to pay for, or might even despise, by footing the bill for services for the nonprofits.

Organizations and people pay federal, state and local taxes because services cost money. Firefighting and law enforcement, roads and military protection, social safety nets and clean air and water all take cash to provide. Tax-exempt organizations such as colleges, hospitals, churches and food banks need protection from fire, crime, pollution and enemy nations, just as they need electricity and heat. Their supporters should contribute enough to pay the taxes that fund such services, just as they contribute enough to fund rent, utilities and programming, and those contributions should not be tax deductible for the contributor. There’s no reason the tax burden of the services should fall on non-supporters, or that supporters should get a tax break for doing as they wish with their cash.

The call to repeal the Johnson Amendment will not go away, but we need to remember what it means. This isn’t houses of worship demanding the right to political speech, which they already have. This is religious organizations demanding the right to make unwilling taxpayers fund their political speech, which should never be allowed.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

It’s easy to see how people following the debate over the “tax reform” bill and its special tangential guest star, the Johnson Amendment, could be confused about houses of worship and political speech, so let’s set the record straight.

No law prohibits religious organizations from politicking. They can buy ads claiming Jesus thinks President Donald Trump is dandy and is glad the GOP is keeping ol’ Mike Pence handy, and the government can’t say a word. Temples and mosques can promote or attack politicians loudly and proudly. They can demand followers vote for or against candidates, and threaten damnation for those who disobey.

What a religious institution that wants to politick can’t do, thanks to the Johnson Amendment of 1954, is maintain tax-exempt status. Neither can colleges, charities or any nonprofits, nor should they.

Actually, no group or institution in the United States should have tax-exempt status, no matter how angelic (or demonic), but we’ll get to that in a sec.

Trump campaigned promising to get rid of the amendment, echoing the argument from many evangelicals that the ban is a denial of free speech rights. Once elected, Trump signed a meaningless executive order that instructed the Department of the Treasury not to penalize religious organizations for political speech it wouldn’t punish secular tax-exempt institutions for, which the amendment doesn’t allow anyway.

The original House version of the tax changes passed last month included a repeal of the Johnson Amendment. It was introduced to free up the realm of politics only to houses of worship, then amended to include any tax-exempt group. But it did not make the Senate version, and it fell out of the final bill. So the repeal is gone, but will likely come up again.

The first problem with such a change is that, once political parties realized they could make their contributions tax-exempt, unlimited and anonymous by funneling them through religious or other tax-exempt organizations, every contribution would come via the Church of Republican Principles God Digs or the Make-A-Wish-for-a-Democratic-Candidate Foundation.

But the bigger problem with letting tax-exempt organizations practice politics is the same pitfall that crops up anytime tax-exempt organizations are allowed to do anything: It forces those who do pay their taxes to support causes or organizations they might not want to pay for, or might even despise, by footing the bill for services for the nonprofits.

Organizations and people pay federal, state and local taxes because services cost money. Firefighting and law enforcement, roads and military protection, social safety nets and clean air and water all take cash to provide. Tax-exempt organizations such as colleges, hospitals, churches and food banks need protection from fire, crime, pollution and enemy nations, just as they need electricity and heat. Their supporters should contribute enough to pay the taxes that fund such services, just as they contribute enough to fund rent, utilities and programming, and those contributions should not be tax deductible for the contributor. There’s no reason the tax burden of the services should fall on non-supporters, or that supporters should get a tax break for doing as they wish with their cash.

The call to repeal the Johnson Amendment will not go away, but we need to remember what it means. This isn’t houses of worship demanding the right to political speech, which they already have. This is religious organizations demanding the right to make unwilling taxpayers fund their political speech, which should never be allowed.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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