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October 25, 2006 | South Carolina Headlines


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Tax Exemption: Power to Control
Jonathan Pait
September 15, 2004

A clash between Church and State is brewing in Florida. The Internal Revenue Service has issued a letter to the First Baptist Church of College Hill seeking information about the congregationís political activity. Pastor Abraham Brown commented, "I don't want to shed any light on it until we get justice." The IRS is silent on the matter.

This story is not unique. However, this report found in the St. Petersburg Times got my attention because it mentions my employer, Bob Jones University. The writer says, "Advocates for Christian churches say they are most often the target of scrutiny. Some of the IRS's high-profile cases have been against Falwell and Bob Jones University, a Christian college in Greenville, S.C." This was written in the context of the IRS punishing religious organizations for political involvement. While the example of Falwell way fit the context, BJU's loss of tax exemption had nothing to do with political activities.

"The power to tax is the power to destroy." It is also true that the power to grant tax exemption is the power to control.

In this way the BJU case was somewhat of a milestone - or tombstone - in the way the IRS worked with organizations. It does connect to this Florida story from a different angle. To put it in layman's language (the kind I need), it was ruled that the government granting tax exemption to an organization was the same as the government giving money to that organization. If that organization engaged in activity that was contrary to "prevailing public policy," the government would be supporting that organization and by extension the activity in which it was engaged.

This two-decade old ruling has had the potential turn the traditional dealings between the government and churches upside down. Using the logic of the BJU court case, it is a simple step to then say that the government's granting of tax exemption is tantamount to the "establishment of religion."

However, this flies in the face of the history of not taxing churches. It is true that the framers of the Constitution did not want established government churches as found in Europe. However, during that same period states were exempting churches and the Seventh Congress passed a property tax exemption in 1802. These exemptions were never thought to be a gift or at conflict with the First Amendment.

Indeed, they were limiting the government's power to use taxes to hinder the free exercise of religion. Tax exemption was for the purpose of strengthening the First Amendment. Such control by taxation was common in the European-style church establishment.

Now, that is being turned on its head. What was intended to be a limitation on government has turned into a tool of power for the government. The churches can't win for losing.

I am not a proponent of organized church activism in politics. I do not like the practice of the Republicans using church directories to trawl for votes. I don't like the practice of having politicians come to speak from the pulpit on matters of politics. However, as much as I don't like it, the government has no business telling churches what they can or cannot do - especially when it comes to matters of free speech. This whole business makes a mock of the First Amendment on multiple levels!

Today's secular society wishes to create a culture where it is okay to go behind your closed church doors and practice your little religion club. However, they don't know what to do with people who take their beliefs seriously and see a connection between doctrine and day-to-day living. These type of people scare them and they must be controlled.

For the Christian, he is not only a Christian when he crosses the threshold of the church. He is also a Christian when he enters the voting booth - or when he stands as an elected official on the floor of Congress. Freely exercising religion does not mean "free to believe what you want as long as you keep it inside the church doors." The IRS and those who wish to use it as a tool of control misuse the "establishment of religion" clause to negate the "free exercise thereof."

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It is conceivable that if churches were taxed only for Constitutional expenses, i.e. services that they actually use or benefit from, then exemption could be construed as tantamount to government subsidy. However, when the vast majority of taxation goes to fund wealth redistribution, it is rediculous to say that by not robbing Peter to pay Paul that the government is somehow supporting Peter. . . .

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