Religious freedom is a constitutional right not a “tax exempt status”

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I don’t mean to pick on my friend Matt Lewis, who wrote a splendid article called When ‘leave us alone’ became ‘bake us a cake!”

He’s talking about proposed legislation in Arizona which would allow bakers and florists the ability to refuse to participate in same-sex ‘marriage’ ceremonies. Lewis noted:

The reason conservative Christians are fighting this fight today is because it’s a firewall. The real danger, of course, is that Christian pastors and preachers will eventually be coerced into performing same-sex marriages. (Note: It is entirely possible for someone to believe gay marriage is fine, and to still oppose forcing people who hold strong religious convictions to participate — but I suspect that is where we are heading.)

Think of it this way. If you were a congregant in a church, wouldn’t you expect the pastor to marry you? Why should you be treated different?

Any pastor — if he or she wants to maintain the church’s tax status, that is — had better grapple with this now.

The fight over the florists and bakers is important in its own right, but Lewis is right that a larger battle looms ahead.

But… I don’t mean to nitpick, because I think this is actually a very important rhetorical point. For the love of all that is holy, we all need to stop saying: “Churches might lose their tax-exempt status.”

What does this mean, exactly?

Since the deplorable 16th amendment was enacted 101 years ago, the income tax has been inflicting pain on individuals and companies alike. And in the eyes of the IRS, every human and every organization is automatically considered in the taxable category unless they are in one of the special alphanumberic ‘tax-exempt’ codings.

You’re 15? Ok, you’re a “dependent” according to Section 152.

Pastors and ministers? Here’s your Section 107(2) housing exemption.

You’re a school? Do you want to organize as a non-profit? Then you can qualify as a 501c3 organization. But if you want to make a profit, then you will pay corporation taxes.

Oh, you’re a church? Then you can operate as a 501c3 organization and have ‘tax-exempt status.’

Ah, but the funny thing about ‘status’ is that it can be revoked, right?

But religious freedom isn’t a ‘status.’ It’s a First Amendment protection. Since the dawn of this Republic, we have never given the federal government the power to tax Churches. There are two very powerful reasons for this:

1. We considered the Church to be involved in the common good not personal self-interest. People gathered together to worship, to pray, to feed the sick, help their neighbors. We made the decision to finance our government by taxing commercial enterprises (taxing businesses and employees), not religious groups.

2. The power to tax is the power to destroy. The same Founders who were so afraid of governmental tyranny that they enshrined a right to own guns would not want a federal government who would raid the coffers of churches. There are many people who think it’s patently unfair that churches don’t pay taxes. They claim that churches should be taxed just like any other company. Local governments would salivate at getting property taxes from churches. And the federal government would certainly get more money by slapping large corporate taxes on all churches. But let’s be honest, our churches would immediately be brought to their knees if this happened. Americans, in general, are far too stingy with charitable giving to their church. I’m embarrassed to admit this but Catholics give close to 3 or 4% of their income — far shy of the tithe recommended to us by the Bible. Now imagine a floodgate of tax bills to these churches? You thought we had church closings before?

And that’s presuming that churches are considered on an equal playing field with all ‘businesses.’ But don’t forget that the tax man has created special categories on the other end of the spectrum. Did you know for example, that actors were taxed at the highest marginal rate of 90% for several decades during the middle part of the 20th century? Imagine a tax code where churches are no longer shielded by the tax man and ambitious future politicians take Obama’s HHS mandate a step further. I shudder to think of what a President Andrew Cuomo might do.

So when you hear someone say: “We should repeal the tax-exempt status of churches!” we need to reply: “Why do you want the government to start taxing churches? Is it because our federal government does a great job with our money? Or is it because churches like St. Mary’s on the corner are so obviously flush with cash?”

In truth, churches don’t have a tax exempt ‘status.’ They have freedom. Let’s keep it that way.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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Joshua Mercer is a co-founder of CatholicVote.org, where he serves as Political Director. Mercer is also regular contributor with Catholic Pulse. Mercer previously served as Washington Correspondent for the National Catholic Register and Chairman for Students for Life of America. He lives in Michigan with his wife and six children.

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