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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    When churches attack

    Damion LeeNatalicolumnist
    Damion LeeNatali
    columnist

    It was October 2004, and preacher George Regas had had enough. Taking to the pulpit at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., on the eve of the presidential election, he delivered a riling sermon entitled “”If Jesus Debated Sen. Kerry and President Bush.””

    “”I believe Jesus would say to Bush and Kerry: ‘War itself is the most extreme form of terrorism,'”” Regas proclaimed to the congregation. “”God loathes war … (and) Jesus refuses to accept the violence of war as the necessary consequences of our tragic losses on Sept. 11.””

    Clearly, Regas’ sermon had a decidedly anti-war bent, but was it political? The Internal Revenue Service seemed to think so. In June of 2005, the agency sent a letter to All Saints saying that it could lose its tax-exempt status for “”intervention in a political campaign.””

    Now, let’s be clear: The issue at hand isn’t one of free speech. The government wasn’t attempting to silence Regas; it was simply declaring that the church at which he delivered his sermon might have forgone its tax-exempt status the instant Regas gave a politically tinged sermon.

    You see, by virtue of their positive contributions to the community, religious

    Whereas the IRS had previously only barred tax-exempt religious organizations from explicitly endorsing or opposing a candidate, it now seemed to be declaring that a speech like Regas’ that effectively endorsed or opposed a candidate was a violation as well.

    organizations are tax-exempt. In order to maintain that status, though, the IRS bars them from explicitly endorsing or opposing political candidates.

    And therein lies the problem. Whereas the IRS had previously only barred tax-exempt religious organizations from explicitly endorsing or opposing a candidate, it now seemed to be declaring that a speech like Regas’ that effectively endorsed or opposed a candidate was a violation as well.

    Of course, there are some who question the very origins of the system. Deborah Mathieu, a UA associate professor of political science and a graduate of the Yale Divinity School, contends that religious institutions shouldn’t be tax-exempt in the first place.

    “”If we want to maintain separation of church and state, we should tax all religions equally,”” she said. “”It looks to me that, by exempting religions from taxes, the state is encouraging religion. What business does the state have in helping religions to form?””

    Mathieu has a point, but only to the extent that all religions should be treated equally; that is, that they should either be taxed equally or not at all. But given the fact that nonprofits and charitable organizations are tax-exempt because of their contributions to the community, it’s reasonable to argue that religious organizations shouldn’t be burdened with tax obligations either.

    And if we assume that religions should be tax-exempt, we should affirm that it is the prerogative of our moral leaders to declare what they feel is moral or immoral, even if it has the effect of persuading their followers to vote for or against a particular candidate.

    Whether they’re commenting on abortion or the war in Iraq, the fact of the matter is that religious leaders are doing nothing more than exercising their duty to provide moral guidance, and to say that the government can penalize them for doing so is a dangerous affront to all of our civil liberties.

    Now, establishing a link between the right to bear arms and the right of a preacher to oppose the war in Iraq might seem difficult. But civil liberties are more akin to a house of cards than stand-alone structures; if the government can encroach on one freedom, it weakens all the others.

    So as we get closer and closer to the midterm elections in November, it’s important that we acknowledge the freedom of our religious leaders, if not their particular stances on the issues. And while it might have been well-intentioned in trying to enforce the law, the IRS should exercise restraint in investigating those leaders.

    Too often, the First Amendment is interpreted solely as a mechanism to rid the government of religion, but that’s not its only purpose. It was designed to guarantee freedom, and if we value the right to think and worship for ourselves, we have to recognize that it just might be time to protect the church from the state.

    Damion LeeNatali is a senior majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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