Monday, September 8, 2008

Free Speech vs. Tax Law

For people who are obsessed with other people's "personal responsibility," the wingnut freakazoids sure do have a hard time distinguishing between their own rights and their responsibilities to society.

We saw this in the torture "debate" - though the mere fact that elected officials of the United States of America considered torture a subject of debate is shamefully inexcusable. John McCain and other drooling psychopaths used the hypothetical case of a "ticking time bomb" to justify allowing Americans to torture prisoners.

It wasn't enough that in a such vanishingly rare case, a true patriot would be more than willing to torture illegally to get the information - and then accept the consequences of breaking the law.

No, no, the crazies insisted - we must make torture legal in all circumstances, everywhere at all times for any reason, just to make sure that in that one-in-million case no patriot will have to risk his delicate skin to do the right thing.

Now the freakazoids are insisting that making churches who play politics also pay taxes is an unconstitutional violation of their free speech rights.

(More after the jump.)

No one is restricting your free speech rights, assholes. You can get up in your church and say anything you like about any candidate. You can plead for donations and volunteers to a candidate's campaign. You can turn your church into a giant billboard exhorting people to vote for your candidate.

But if you do, don't expect everybody else to subsidize your political activities. If you make your church an arm of a political party, you have to accept that you forfeit your tax-exempt status. Tax law states that non-profit organizations - not just churches, mosques, temples or other religious organizations, but ALL non-profit organizations - are entitled to tax-exemption ONLY if they refrain from partisan political activity.

That's a tax law that has nothing - nothing - to do with free speech. It has to do with the rules under which your donors can deduct their contributions from their income for tax purposes.

One hundred years ago, there was no such thing as tax-deductible donations. Before the permanent federal income tax in 1913, people gave donations to churches and other charities with no expectation of earthly reward. And charitable organizations, including churches, spoke out on partisan political issues to their heart's content.

Four years later, in 1917, the federal government allowed donors to deduct their contributions from their taxable income. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that to qualify for the deduction, the recipient charity had to refrain from involvement in partisan political activities. This was not a gag order on charities; this was the only way for such tax deductions to be Constitutional under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. This rule protects charities, including churches.

Churches did not stop speaking out on partisan politics because the federal government told them to shut up. Churches stopped speaking out on partisan politics because they wanted more money.

And now, they want to keep the money and play politics, too. But the latest scheme to challenge the tax law is really just another wingnut freakazoid special pleading disguising a fascist attack on the Constitution.

Declaring that clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors to do just that on Sept. 28, in defiance of Internal Revenue Service rules.

At first blush, the ADF argument may sound compelling. If a church wants to endorse a candidate, it's the church's business, right? If congregations don't like it, they can go to another church. If a pastor passes the collection plate for John McCain during Sunday services, church members can contribute or not contribute. This isn't, the argument goes, any of the government's business.

But this falls apart pretty quickly. Tax law doesn't stifle free speech; it applies conditions to tax exemptions.

Non-profit organizations receive a tax exemption because their work is charitable, educational or religious. But the benefit comes with conditions, most notably a requirement that tax-exempt organizations refrain from involvement in partisan politics. Since tax-exempt groups are supposed to work for the public good, not spend their time and money trying to elect or defeat candidates, it's hardly unreasonable.

But what if some ministries believe partisan political work is absolutely necessary? They're in luck -- they have every legal right to give up their tax exemption and create an explicitly partisan organization, such as a PAC. Current law simply limits groups from being both tax-exempt ministries and engaging in partisan politics.

ADF, meanwhile, not only wants to let ministries have it both ways, it also wants these ministries to take a huge risk with no reward -- break the law, help partisan candidates, and risk IRS penalty. Why? Because the Alliance Defense Fund, a multimillion-dollar right-wing legal consortium, has a culture-war experiment it's anxious to try out.

Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic ....