Joel Belz: Defending tax-free churches

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, November 20th. You’re listening to The World and Everything in It from WORLD Radio. Good morning to you!  I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. One part of freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment is that churches are exempt from taxes. 

It’s the principle that there is no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion than to tax it. It reinforces a healthy separation between church and state.

So when former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said he’d pull the rug out from under religious institutions, that got WORLD founder Joel Belz’s attention.

JOEL BELZ, FOUNDER: The question came from CNN reporter Don Lemon at an October 10th forum on gay rights. It was straightforward: “Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities—should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?”

O’Rourke was immediate and explicit in his response:

O’ROURKE: Yes. [applause] There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we are going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.

O’Rourke’s response was so radical that even Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg dissented from it. Buttigieg, a practicing homo­sexual, said—quoting now—“The idea that you’re going to strip churches of their tax-exempt status if they haven’t found their way toward blessing same-sex marriage—I’m not sure he understood the implications of what he was saying.” End quote. 

O’Rourke’s later effort at “clarification” served to show what the former Texas congressman really thinks on the subject. During an MSNBC interview, he said—quote—“The way that you practice your religion or your faith within that mosque or that temple or synagogue or church, that is your business, and not the government’s business.” 

O’Rourke should have stopped right there. But he didn’t. He went on—quote—“But when you are providing services in the public sphere, say, higher education, or health care, or adoption services, and you discriminate or deny equal treatment under the law based on someone’s skin color or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation, then we have a problem.” End quote. 

O’Rourke’s understanding of “religious freedom” seems to involve whatever activity is carried on inside a “religious building”—but little else. 

Any American who takes his religious faith seriously should be glad that O’Rourke has now withdrawn from the race.

Loss of tax-exempt status isn’t the end-all of bad things that could happen to religious nonprofits. Most of the charitable giving I’m familiar with is motivated by a love for an organization’s mission, not tax benefits. But it’s not an immaterial issue, especially for large donors.

Loss of exemption also carries likely threats of a different sort: Academic institutions could lose accreditation and charities could have to pay local property taxes and sales taxes. 

Note well that these huge and financially ruinous obligations are not immediately likely. But the fact that a mainstream candidate can so glibly and dogmatically propose such a change is cause for appropriate concern.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Joel Belz.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) In this Oct. 17, 2019 photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke speaks during a campaign rally in Grand Prairie, Texas. O’Rourke has announced he’s dropping his 2020 presidential bid. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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