Friday, May 20, 2005

Toon HR 235 and commentary

Bill HR 235 Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act,replealing the IRS Johnson Act of 1952

The cartoon above was inspired by an article by Steven Voigt posted earlier this month at Renew America. Steve's article reminded me that I owed Bill HR 235 (along with a myriad of other procastinated subjects) a cartoon. In addition to being a lawyer and conservative commentator, Mr. Voigt is also the executive director of Foundations Of Law PAC, the primary goal of which is to 'promote candidates for office who will appoint strict constructionist judges, pass tort reform and hold true to the original intent of our founding fathers and documents.'
I posted the 'in progress' version of the toon yesterday, and received this email from Vincent Newstead, a longtime and respected critic/fan of the cartoon.

Come on, Dan... you know churches are free to endorse any political candidate they wish if they simply choose to pay their taxes. I volunteered at a tax-exempt public radio station as a DJ for four years and was permitted to say practically anything I wanted to on the air as long as I wasn't endorsing or opposing a particular political candidate (Social and political issues were fair topics for discussion, however). If the station ever really felt it was that important to advocate for a favorite political candidate we could always have canceled our tax-exempt status. The option was there. Those were the rules; I agreed with them and I followed them.

The restriction is fair and limits only the tiniest fraction of speech, far less than obscenity laws do. None of the restricted speech is religious in nature. Even if the restrictions were unfair there's simply no reason I can think of that the government should show favoritism to churches among tax-exempt non-profits by allowing them to advocate, oppose or campaign for favored political candidates. Even if the bill were passed and the Baptist church down the street were allowed to campaign for Jeb Bush, then Amnesty International should get to campaign for his opponent. On this, if nothing else, we should be in agreement.

On the bright side, tax-exempt churches are not restricted by the IRS from speaking out and/or taking sides on relevent political issues or even "excommunicating" Democratic-voting members. Let freedom ring.

Cheers, Vincent

I asked Mr. Voigt if he might offer a response to this commentary. To my delight he sent this very elegant reply-

Restoring the free exchange of ideas in sermons and in bible study is a step forward for liberty.

In today's hectic world of TV dinners, traffic jams and long work weeks, where is one place that communities come together, for a simple moment to breathe? The answer is church. Church!

We must be allowed to come together as communities and decide the important moral issues of our day with calm heads, handshakes and reasoned consideration. This is the foundation of our society and moreover, it is the basis of any free thinking democratic republic. It is also part of our history. As an example, in 1638, only months before Connecticut legislators drafted and adopted the original Connecticut constitution, Thomas Hooker delivered a famous sermon to many of those statesmen. Hooker's ideas inspired these men so much that they penned his ideas into the constitution.

To Christians with a worldview, and I believe it is an obligation of believers to live with a worldview, faith is not something that begins and ends on Sunday morning. Faith carries over into our lives – into every moment. It has implications in everything we do. How we interact with others. The way we spend our time. For whom we cast our votes.

The writer's cynical reference to "excommunicating" Democratic voters is precisely the fear tactic that Americans for Separation of Church and State and other radical, left wing groups employ. Before the 2004 election, Americans United sent letters to congregations all across the country, warning churches not to interfere with politics and implying that lawsuits would quickly follow against any church with the temerity to talk about political issues.

With regard to the writer's attempt to distinguish “issues” from endorsements of candidates, from the court decisions that I have studied, the line is hazy. Creative, agenda driven lawyers could quite easily manipulate these decisions to craft troublesome lawsuits against a cash-strapped churches. For example, if two candidates offer precisely the same platform yet one supports abortion and the other supports life, and if a church resolves this "issue" in the context of the upcoming election, activist courts could view this as an endorsement of one candidate. As a consequence, the church would be punished and lose its tax-exempt status or face other IRS sanctions.

Finally, government encroachment on the ability of churches to freely discuss issues violates the spirit, although perhaps not the letter, of the First Amendment. Of course, this is not the prevailing view in courts today. Sadly, courts employ the First Amendment in a manner never intended - as an offensive tool to craft left-wing social policy. Our founding fathers were deeply concerned with the very problem facing us today - a bloated government and a people stripped of their ability to govern on important social issues. This is the primary rationale that drove the passage of portions of the bill of rights.

In sum, free speech in church is not a partisan issue, although left-wingers will cast it that way for political benefit. Those who love liberty – on both sides of the aisle – should support free speech in churches.

I encourage everyone to contact their Congressmen and voice support for the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (HR 235)


Steven T. Voigt

Follow up comments from Mr. Voigt-

Last evening, as I was considering the writer's criticism of HR 235, it occurred to me that I missed one point in my initial response. Without question, it is Constitutionally proper to apply different standards to churches and to other tax-exempt entities. While naysayers argue that PBS and similar entities should be treated the same way as churches, comparing the two is comparing apples and oranges. One need go no further than the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to see that our founding fathers placed a special emphasis on keeping the government out of our churches.

And from Mr. Newstead-

One thing in particular I would like to respond to (and I would appreciate it if you could include this on your blog, thanks in advance) is that my comment about "excommunicating" Democratic voters from churches was a reference to East Waynesville Baptist Church in North Carolina who in early May "excommunicated" their Democratic voters. WLOS had the story... (no permanent link, sorry, but there's a video here:

East Waynesville Baptist asked nine members to leave. Now 40 more have left the church in protest. Former members say Pastor Chan Chandler gave them the ultimatum, saying if they didn’t support George Bush, they should resign or repent. The minister declined an interview with News 13. But he did say “the actions were not politically motivated.” There are questions about whether the bi-laws were followed when the members were thrown out.
Witnesses said that the congregation applauded as the heretics exited the auditorium. It turns out the pastor did in fact violate church bi-laws and as a result he's probably looking for a new job. But to the point, his actions were not in violation of the conditions of the church's tax exemption. So, aside from the nine Democrats that were humiliated in front of their congregation and cast out of the church, no Christians were persecuted. In any case, it was this that I was cynically referencing and not "left-wing scare tactics."
If you're still in contact with Voigt, I don't suppose you could you ask him to be more specific or to pass on some cases where courts did in fact rule against a church in a tax-exemption challenge where only political issues were discussed, inside or outside of an election context? For my own erudition. I'm curious just how serious the threat from activist judges is, in this case.
Thanks again, Vincent

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