Last month, Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Gainesville, Fla., church that waded into partisan politics in a mayoral race.
Dove World Outreach Center erected a sign on its property reading, “No Homo Mayor.” The reference is to Craig Lowe, a mayoral candidate who is gay. Terry Jones, senior pastor at the church, freely admitted to the Gainesville Sun that the church erected the sign in an effort to intervene in the election.
“We don’t feel as though the city should be represented by a homosexual,” Jones said.
AU’s report to the IRS made quite a splash in the local media. It was also picked up by a number of blogs.
All of the attention may have made officials at Dove World Outreach Center a little skittish. They have now altered the sign; it reads simply “No homo.”
Nice try, guys, but I’m afraid it’s too late. Your church put up a sign attacking a candidate for mayor, and now you should pay the consequences. This is an open-and-shut case. The IRS should act quickly.
Meanwhile, the issue of church politicking takes front and center today on AOL News. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, squares off with Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF).
Stanley makes an unusual argument. Tax exemption for churches, he says, is required by the Constitution. Therefore, Congress has no right to place conditions on it.
“Churches derive their tax exemption from the Constitution, and it is therefore not something the government can withdraw or condition without serious damage to the Constitution itself,” Stanley argues.
It would be a compelling argument – if it weren’t made up out of whole cloth.
The fact is, the Constitution says nothing about tax exemption for churches. The issue simply is not addressed. It’s true that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld tax exemption for houses of worship in the 1970 decision Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, but the court merely declared that tax exemption for religious groups was not a violation of the First Amendment; it did not say that such exemptions a constitutional right.
Furthermore, the high court upheld tax exemption in Walz in part because it is extended to non-religious groups as well. They reasoned that it can’t be considered a special benefit only to religion if libraries, schools, hospitals and so on claim it as well.
Observed Chief Justice Warren Burger, “New York, in common with the other States, has determined that certain entities that exist in a harmonious relationship to the community at large, and that foster its ‘moral or mental improvement,’ should not be inhibited in their activities by property taxation or the hazard of loss of those properties for nonpayment of taxes. It has not singled out one particular church or religious group or even churches as such; rather, it has granted exemption to all houses of religious worship within a broad class of property owned by nonprofit, quasi-public corporations which include hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, scientific, professional, historical, and patriotic groups. The State has an affirmative policy that considers these groups as beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life and finds this classification useful, desirable, and in the public interest.”
More relevantly, Burger noted that groups can lose tax exemption, writing, “Qualification for tax exemption is not perpetual or immutable; some tax-exempt groups lose that status when their activities take them outside the classification and new entities can come into being and qualify for exemption.”
That would hardly be the case if tax exemption were a matter of constitutional right.
Pulpit-based politicking is a bad deal all around. It converts churches into cogs in political machines; numerous polls show that Americans don’t want this. The gang at the ADF should give up this misguided crusade.
As for the Dove World Outreach Center, it deserves to lose its tax-exempt status.