Monday, September 29, 2008

Sky pilots tell federal speech police to take a hike

In a move intended to force the hand of the Internal Revenue Service, thirty-odd pastors took to their pulpits yesterday to make explicit political endorsements -- of the Republican McCain/Palin ticket in particular -- in violation of laws regulating their tax-exempt status. Led in their civil disobedience by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, the rebellious clergy want to provoke the IRS into imposing penalties that will serve as the grounds for a lawsuit intended to overturn muzzling restrictions.

Churches gained their tax-exempt status in 1913, at the birth of the convoluted and incomprehensible modern tax code. The republic somehow managed to survive the co-existence of tax-exempt status and full free-speech rights until 1954 when a prickly U.S. senator named Lyndon Baines Johnson, annoyed by criticism from non-profit groups, added the restrictive language "without the benefit of hearings, testimony, or comment from affected organizations during Senate floor debate on the Internal Revenue Code."

The argument since then has been that the arrangement is a simple tradeoff -- non-profit groups, including churches, get certain tax advantages in return for keeping their mouths shut about political candidates. In the case of religious organizations, the matter has also taken on a certain church-state gloss as some people argue that the restriction is a necessary component of the separation of church and state.

The first argument might be more compelling if the political muzzle had been put in place from the beginning -- but its imposition four decades later, as an overt effort to shut-up critics, strips the arrangement of any sense of inevitability.

But even if we accept the quid pro quo argument, what about other benefits offered by the state? If tax-exempt status necessarily strips its possessor of some First Amendment rights, why shouldn't access to public assistance or publicly funded student loans come with .. oh .. loss of voting rights for as long as the benefits are received or the loan is outstanding?

And what about holders of government licenses and permits, who benefit from legal access to professions and markets forbidden to others? Why shouldn't they be stripped of the right to criticize the regulators who butter their bread?

If the surrender of fundamental rights can be demanded in return for government benefits, we're headed in a pertty unpleasant direction -- especially given the increasing involvement of the state in our everyday lives.

As for the argument for separation of church and state ... The First Amendment applies to government, not private parties; as with the rest of the Bill of Rights, it's a protection against state interference. Government can't favor one religion over another, nor can it dictate doctrine to believers. The First Amendment doesn't say anything about what houses of worship can or can't do.

On a personal note, I'm a long-time, sleep-in-on-holy-days heathen, with little tolerance for sermons about my wicked, wicked ways. But I still recognize that preachers have the same free speech rights as any other idiots (or, occasionally, geniuses) with opinions.

That doesn't mean that it's necessarily a good idea for pastors to leaven their sermons with heavy political commentary. Polls in recent years have found declining public enthusiasm for pulpit-based political activism, even among people with, traditionally, the strongest religious views. According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, "Four years ago, just 30% of conservatives believed that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics. Today, 50% of conservatives express this view."

If pastors want to walk down that potentially perilous road, it's their right to do so. And if they tick off their parisioners in the process, so be it.

So kudos to the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" pastors who had the courage of their convictions to challenge illegitimate restrictions on their free speech rights. It's about time somebody took the plunge. For the sake of political balance, they should be joined by churches, synagogues and non-profits from across the political spectrum.

Are there any liberal priests or libertarian rabbis who care to join the pastors and take a stand for free speech?

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