Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….
First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
Of course, the First Amendment says a lot more, but this is the first clause in the first attempt to improve the nation’s governing document.
I want to bring this up because of something I posted earlier about whether we can tax religious organizations if they seek to coerce or bully politicians into enacting certain public policy.
I believe religious organizations that endorse candidates for public office or — in the case of the San Francisco Catholic archdiocese — deny communion to officials over their abortion stance make them fair game for taxation.
I’ve seen some chatter out there that such a taxing policy would violate the “separation between church and state” spelled out in the First Amendment. I shall disagree with all due respect.
The religious exemption is quite specific, as I read the Constitution. It declares only that Congress must avoid enacting laws that establish a religion. The clause makes no mention of tax policy. It says only that the government cannot force people to believe a certain or faith or prohibit them from the freedom to worship — or not worship — as they please.
It appears to my reading that the Constitution grants considerable leeway to tax religious organizations if their leaders venture into the political realm.
The late Rev. Jerry Falwell entered the arena in the 1980s and 1990s with his constant attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton; so did the Rev. Franklin Graham with his endorsement of political candidates; Catholic clergy have sought to deny politicians communion over abortion policy for decades; churches with predominant African American congregations have been staging political rallies for many years.
All of them are exempted from paying taxes.
To ascribe some sort of constitutional prohibition from taxing these entities is to expand what the First Amendment declares beyond anything I recognize.