Let Us Pray

The proposed GOP tax bill repeals the so-called “Johnson Amendment” to IRC 501(c)(3)  which allows tax exempt status only to an organization “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Under the proposed bill, Section 501(c)(3) would be modified to allow “campaign activity by churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches.” As set forth in the explanation of the bill (text pages 297-297, pdf pages 304-304):

[A] church, an integrated auxiliary of a church, or a convention or association of churches shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a religious purpose, nor shall it be deemed to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, solely because of the content of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings, but only if the preparation and presentation of such content: (A) is in the ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose; and (B) results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses.

Oddly, the bill is essentially effective immediately upon enactment, since it is effective for all years ending after the date of enactment.  Because the taxable year for most churches ends on December 31, if the bill is passed in December, political activities in 2017, even if they took place before the date of enactment, will not result in disqualification of the church’s tax exempt status.

According to the majority GOP estimate (text page 76, pdf page 82) (which manages to misspell “de minimis”), this provision will cost the Treasury $2.1 Billion over 10 years.

One can see from the explanation one of the most significant problems with this provision that, in order to determine if any church is or is not violating the provision, there will have to be direct government entanglement with religion.  This poses a direct threat to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664, 674 (1970).

Today, Paul Ryan tweeted: “Reports out of Texas are devastating. The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now.” Of course, my prayer is that Paul Ryan vacate his position as Speaker of the House as soon as possible.  Judging by the tweets in response to Ryan’s tweet, this country is about to undergo a religious revival and answer my prayers.  And, if the churches chime in, the revival will be tax exempt.

6 thoughts on “Let Us Pray”

  1. Under the law of unintended consequences, I wonder if this might not be the first step in removing the tax exemption from churches. It stands no chance of happening for a couple of generations at least, but we are, slowly, heading in the direction of increasing numbers of "nones"–those who are not religiously affiliated. Meanwhile, evangelicalism has the reputation (among non-evangelicals at least) of being highly politicized. I mention evangelicalism specifically because, while individual denominations have governing bodies that oversee qualifications, doctrine and practices, it's fairly easy, relatively speaking, to set up as an independent evangelical church under no oversight at all. It doesn't take much imagination to see this as a way to set up minimally (or un-)regulated tax-exempt organizations with an officially religious purpose but a primarily political focus.

  2. I look forward to Stuart's analysis of the proposal to remove tax exemption for tuition waivers and other assaults on higher education. How would the tuition thing work? The initial asking prices for tuition in US colleges are only paid by rich, dumb students; they are set so as to allow massive reductions for the more deserving, academically and socially. The tax change is at first sight like treating the reduction in the price of a rug from the Marrakesh dealer's initial outrageous asking price to the one you actually pay as a gift on his part.

    What are they thinking of? It's gut culture wars all the way. Each such change, trivial in budget terms, pisses off another Republican constituency.

  3. Oh man. Clergy and lay leaders of most denominations do not want to be allowed to bring partisan politics into the pulpit. If they are allowed, there will be factions within the congregation that want them to endorse from the pulpit, and other factions that will agitate against either the actual position taken, or the mere fact that any position was taken. This will, of course, cause massive conflict within the congregation. Evangelical clergy may not have this issue to deal with as much, since members join that kind of church not so much because of theology or tradition but because they feel comfortable with the liturgy and the culture. Also, as you note they don't have supervising bodies to tell clergy what not to do.

  4. Since “it’s fairly easy, relatively speaking, to set up as an independent evangelical church under no oversight at all”, what would it take to start an evangelical “SameFacts” church? If I began one, would/could my residence become a tax-free church? Are there any specific requirements that a church need fulfill? Why was the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ruled not to be a church?

    1. Taking this as a sincere query, the answers are as follows. Note: I am not a lawyer; also I got the answers to (a) – (c) from the Great and Powerful Google (Life! Prosperity! Health!)
      (a) it looks to be about as much work, in legal terms, as starting a pet rescue.
      (b) interesting question; it does seem that some people have gotten tax exemptions for turning a part of their house into a place of worship; searches for "house church" and "parsonage tax exemption" will provide more information.
      (c) apparently the IRS has a collection of requirements, a lot of which are supposed to be true of any proposed church, but no church has to fulfill all of them–just enough. They're intentionally vague.
      (d) one requirement the IRS has is that the beliefs be sincerely held; that probably doomed the Church of the FSM, which has a bunch of material around establishing that it's a parody.

Comments are closed.