GOP Tax Plan: If You Thought Citizens United Was A Travesty…

Wait until you get a look at the full impact of the “tax reform” embraced by a Senate filled with servants of Big Money and the rabid, white nationalist GOP base.

Among the many unconscionable deals cut in order to round up the necessary 50 votes was a gift to the Christian far right that I’d suggest filing under “be careful what you wish for.”

According to a guest column in that noted leftwing publication Religion News Service (that’s sarcasm, for those of you who might be literal-minded), the tax bill’s repeal of the Johnson Amendment–a repeal much desired by Trump-supporting fundamentalist churches–will inevitably lead to government regulation of churches.

Partisan politics do not belong in church pulpits or in nonprofit offices. This isn’t just common sense, but part of the tax code. The Johnson Amendment says that 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, cannot endorse or oppose political candidates.

The tax bill initially passed by the House exempted churches from the amendment, but at the last minute, the measure was amended to exempt all 501 C3 organizations. According to the Religion News Service analysis, this will not only cost taxpayers billions of dollars, it will end up “dragging nonprofits away from their charitable missions and into the undrained, partisan swamp.”

It is telling that every major nonprofit coalition has lobbied against repeal. More than  4,500 nonprofits have signed a letter to Congress asking that the rule be protected.

As the article points out, tax exemption is a privilege, not a right–if churches want to engage in political activities, they are free to do so now; they need only relinquish their tax exemption. After all, political donations shouldn’t be “laundered” through religious or nonprofit organizations; preventing that was precisely the reason for the Amendment in the first place. But these churches want to eat their cake and have it, too.

The havoc that would be wrought by repealing the Johnson Amendment would make Citizens United look like the golden age of American democracy. Permitting tax-exempt churches to engage in partisan politicking would throw untold millions — even billions is no exaggeration — of dark money into U.S. elections. Right now, all 501(c)(3) organizations except churches and church-related charities file annual tax returns, the detailed Form 990, with the IRS. Every penny donated and every penny spent is tracked. But churches file nothing. They are exempt. They are financial and informational black holes.

So if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, any megadonor could write the nearest megachurch a check of any size and take the tax write-off. The pastor gets the check, takes his cut — a tithe, so to speak — and spends the rest on politicking. Churches would become super-PACs. All in the name of religious freedom.

Only the most naive policymakers and proponents of repeal could possibly believe that this situation would be allowed to continue unabated.

Trump, Ryan and other opponents of the rule are shortsighted, especially if religious freedom is the true goal. Imagine for a moment that they get everything they want. Churches become unregulated, unaccountable, opaque super-PACs. Regular PACs start reorganizing as churches because their donors have suddenly found tax-deductible Jesus and fled.

This scenario is unsustainable if our democracy is to survive. At some point, the government will be forced to regulate churches: financial disclosures, donor disclosures (including even regular parishioners and tithe-givers), IRS filings, FEC filings — the regulatory list will be long and onerous. Churches will get money, power — and invasive government regulation to match….

A vote against the Johnson Amendment is a vote for church regulation. Surely that’s not something the party that has proclaimed itself the champion of religious liberty intended. But that’s what happens when a reality TV show host dictates tax policy as a way to thank his zealous supporters. The law governing churches’ involvement in politics might change, but the law of unintended consequences will not.

We aren’t just living in an age of corruption–we’re living in an age of idiocy.

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on December 3, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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