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Nov 12 2009

Tax ‘Em

The campaign finance report for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine shows that four Minnesota area Catholic Dioceses contributed $6250 to a campaign to reject a law legalizing gay marriage in Maine.

Yes, you read that right.

The Diocese of Crookston donated $5,000 to the effort. The Diocese of Winona and the Diocese of La Crosse, WI gave $500 each. New Ulm’s Bishop John Levoir gave $250.

They did this to change the laws in Maine. It’s almost 1,500 miles from St. Paul to Portland, Maine, slightly closer from Winona or La Crosse. Nobody from Minnesota needs to travel to Maine to get married. They can do what a couple of friends of mine did this summer and duck across the border into Iowa.

None of these dioceses’ parishioners are going to be making the trip to Maine to get married. None of their parishioners were in any position to be influenced from the pulpit on how to vote on this issue. No, this is strictly about imposing the churches’ will and their religion on others not otherwise under their jurisdiction by changing the law. There’s nothing about that that isn’t politics.

According to the IRS, the dioceses’ actions are currently legal.

For those wondering about tax violations, the IRS forbids tax exempt organizations from backing a political candidate but “can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena. The IRS also has provided guidance regarding the difference between advocating for a candidate and advocating for legislation.”

This needs to change, to become more specific in response to a change in church tactics. What’s going on right now with churches interfering in questions about gay civil marriage isn’t limited in its scope. It isn’t pastors or priests guiding uncertain voters in the pews. It isn’t individual worshipers sending checks. It’s exercising the muscle of national organizations, putting their organizational and fundraising capabilities to use to change the broader American political landscape.

We recognize the influence of money on politics. We do it officially, limiting contributions and requiring that they be disclosed in such a way that the influence of larger entities, like corporations, is also limited. Churches are given exemptions to these and other laws because they are officially held separate from government. That means that government has limited oversight over religion, but that’s only true as long as religion doesn’t exercise undue influence over government.

Between the fight over this vote and the fight over California’s Proposition 8, I think the churches have crossed the line. Tax ‘em.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Jason Thibeault

    They crossed that line a hell of a long time ago. Tax everything above operating costs. Make 'em run as non-profits and make 'em unable to contribute to political affiliations (or other people, who then contribute to political affiliations as middlemen). Have the IRS audit them regularly to make sure they're not cooking the books. You'll see tithing reduced to exactly the bare minimum to operate (because this same crowd wouldn't ever want to give money to the government!), and you'll see more priests thrown in jail for fraud.

  2. 2
    Becca

    Those jerks irrirate me immensely.At the same time, think of the consequences of what you're advocating. You'd prevent the Quakers from fighting the death penalty (http://www.deathpenaltyreligious.org/),the Unitarians from allying with Planned Parenthood to pass reproductive healthcare coverage, or even a Reform Jewish congregation from funding a group that lobbies for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.Not to mention the fact that I don't think there's a large functional obstacle in simply asking your flock to contribute as individuals. I'm not arguing against taxing 'em for other reasons; I just don't see that solving the problem, and I can't think of anyway of addressing just the bits of the practice I find objectionable without harming other actions I think are reasonable/valuable.Jason, with respect, that's absurd. There are plenty of religious folks that tithe and would be fine with the government getting a cut.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    Becca, I had a nice chat with a Friend on Facebook last night on this very topic. The lobby that's associated with the Quakers is a separate institution from the Society itself, and also a separate institution from their Educational Fund, which is basically their PSA arm. All three have different tax statuses and are subject to different regulations. The lobbying group is funded by members, but not by the churches themselves, and those members' contributions to the lobbying efforts are not tax-deductible.Similarly, I have no objection to members of these dioceses contributing directly to the political campaigns in question. Well, I object, but not in such a way that I think I have any right to press those objections legally. Those contributions won't be tax-deductible either. The tax-deductible funds that are given to the church should not be used for a political purpose. In fact, they can't be used for one without giving the church an advantage that unbalances the power structure that's been set up in our country (which is why I'm not quite with Jason on a lot of details).As you point out, there is no barrier to congregants giving on their own. The only reason for a church to do it themselves is to increase the power of the church. We don't allow that.

  4. 4
    Greg

    The problem with having the parallel institutional structure like the Unitarians you spoke with is that this is what most of the churches are doing already. This may or may not be the case with the MN cases you site. There is only one way to solve this problem: No tax exempt status for anyone. Seriously.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    Heh. I'm amused that anyone thinks I thought that would ever fly. Yeah, it's pretty absurd. And it's only the fundie churches that have a significant overlap with the teabaggers. But I do honestly like the idea of forcing churches to operate as non-profits at least. Or, Greg's solution is much more plausible — no tax exemption for anyone is a hell of a lot more egalitarian and wouldn't be seen as a direct attack on religious organizations.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    Greg, from reading the article, I'd say the reporter is aware enough of the issues to have told us if this were a group separate from the dioceses themselves. And actually, if the money from the bishop didn't come out of church funds (except as salary), I have no problem with that.There's an advantage to the tax situation that you may not be considering. By requiring that donations be made separately, the current setup means that people in congregations have to make a second decision to fund political action. They can't just blindly tithe and trust that the church is paying for charity out of that money while it gets used for politics. Considering that many (most?) of them are more liberal than their priests/pastors and more apathetic, this is not a bad thing.

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