News and Notes

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By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

When I drive my car I often listen to Christian radio station KKMS, because I like to hear what the opponents of church/state separation are up to. In early October, I heard their drive-time host, Pastor Brad Brandon, announce his plan to challenge the tax code regulation that forbids tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates for election. Under the 501(c) regulations, churches as well as educational organizations such as Minnesota Atheists are permitted to argue for positions on political issues, but not to engage in electoral politics by directly endorsing or donating to any candidate.

Brandon, Pastor of the Berean Bible Baptist Church in Hastings, is hoping to provoke the Internal Revenue Service into an action that he can take to court to have the tax regulation declared an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech. Brandon is just one cleric challenging tax exemption regulations in a project sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, a well-funded Scottsdale, Arizona-based nonprofit organization that seeks to break down the wall of separation between church and state through litigation. They seem to provide the opposition legal team in practically every case that the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Americans for Separation of Church and State take on.

Religion has throughout history played a major role in affairs of state. Usually the church has supported and justified the temporal authority of the state, but in many cases around the world it has inspired insurrection and overturned governments. A constitutional government such as ours, which maintains a separation between church and state, holds a difficult line. Government confers upon religion a tax exemption in order to encourage private parties to support community work. How, though, can it prevent churches from using this government benefit for partisan advantage? The current regulation barring tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates was introduced in 1954 by then-Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson. But experience has proved that whenever a tax exempt organization has a position on the wedge issues that divide the parties and candidates, IRS-imposed neutrality is an empty charade.

The regulation has (not surprisingly) been ineffective. The Allied Defense Fund in 2008 sponsored another Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which generated complaints against thirty-three churches around the nation where clerics endorsed candidates in their sermons. The IRS decided that it had to review its procedures for investigating complaints, and initiated an investigation against only one of them. That solitary investigation was dropped without comment after a few months.  The IRS is clearly not committed to enforcing this regulation.

Of course, an organization advocating separation must oppose politically organized churches. That is why Americans United filed a complaint with the IRS over Pastor Brandon’s October 17 sermon, in which he endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and other conservative candidates. Nevertheless, I think that Pastor Brandon and the Alliance Defense Fund have a valid argument, that the tax-exemption regulations in question are a government restriction of constitutionally protected political speech. The state should guard against funding political advocacy not through regulations, but by eliminating the tax exemption entirely. It will also affect Minnesota Atheists if tax exemption is withdrawn from all 501(c) organizations, but we should have no objection as long as the law is applied equally to all groups.

PBS ran a 3-part special on God in America in October. While the program was interesting and had some appealing qualities, the exclusive focus on religion gave it a very peculiar lens on America’s history. On the positive side, the program did portray some dangers of the politicization of religious fervor.  On the negative side, the Establishment Clause issues that are the basis of so many court cases were handled summarily if at all. For example, in the discussion of teaching religion in public schools, McCollum v Board of Education case was the only case mentioned. It seemed comical to me that it viewed the social unrest of the 1960s only as the context for a revival of religious passion that followed it.

The News Hour promoted the program by interviewing Robert Putnam, the author of a study of religion in America entitled “American Grace.”  This interview revealed in Putnam’s study the same weakness as the God in America series, a presumption that religion is somehow at the heart of everything that Americans do. When asked how many atheists there are in America, Putnam replied:  “Almost nobody. In our — among our 3,000 people, we had two people who, when we asked them what they were religiously, said they were atheist or agnostic.” Since other studies show that ten to sixteen percent of Americans do not believe in supernatural gods, there must have been a sampling bias in the study that Putnam did not disclose in the interview.

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