From Past to Present

 

Capitol

Although autocratic evangelicals like the founder of my hometown still exist, most Americans are aware that the U.S. Constitution forbids local, state, and federal governments from establishing a national religion and no religious group can speak for the government. However, religion does work its way into social/political and governmental issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and taxes.

On numerous issues, many Americans try to influence government policy by sharing their religious views and opinions—whether pro or con—regarding pending or existing laws. To cover all the social and tax issues vs government would require many books. But some examples might suffice.

Abortion

Perhaps one of the most contentious religion-government controversies is abortion. Aborting an embryo (from conception to nine weeks in a pregnancy) or a fetus (the developing human in the womb) has been legal since 1973. That year the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) struck down severely restrictive state abortion laws in the now-famous Roe v. Wade case. The High Court ruled that the state laws banning abortions were unconstitutional because they did not protect a woman’s right to privacy. In the Roe v. Wade decision, the Court held that during the first three months of pregnancy, a woman had the right to an abortion for any reason. Over the next trimester (three months), states could pass laws regulating abortion to protect a woman’s health. Finally, during the last three months of a pregnancy, when the fetus can live outside the womb, states may pass laws to protect the fetus by prohibiting abortion except to preserve the health or life of the pregnant woman.

People who support the right of women to choose to abort a fetus refer to themselves as pro-choice. They argue that a woman’s right to choose an abortion should not be limited by any governmental or religious authority. In addition, abortion proponents insist that pregnant women will resort to unsafe illegal abortions if there is no legal option. Those opposed to abortion call themselves pro-life and contend that personhood begins at conception. On that basis, opponents declare that abortion not only causes suffering to an unborn child but in reality kills an innocent human being. The two sides on abortion issues frequently engage in political activities to change or support abortion policies and laws. They often face off in public protests or rallies, especially as some state where legislatures have passed or try to pass laws to restrict abortions.

Immigrants and U.S. Laws

Throughout much of U.S. history, laws have banned various groups of immigrants from entering the country and they have faced discrimination and persecution. Other groups have been welcomed. In addition, millions of Africans were forced immigrants, brought to the United States as slaves.

Over many decades, federal laws have restricted who is officially allowed to immigrate. In 1790, the Naturalization Act, for example, required immigrants to be “free white persons” of “good moral character” and to live in the United States for two years before becoming citizens. The act was revised several times, and by 1892, immigrants could become citizens after five years of residency. Fast forward to the 2017s, when thousands of Americans began advocating for laws that allow immigrants without legal permits to become citizens through what is called a pathway to citizenship. But conflicts have been ongoing and probably will not end soon as POTUS, Donald J. Trump and his administration continue their tirades about protecting the U.S. southern border.

Religious Institutions and Taxes

Religious institutions—churches, mosques, temples, and other places of worship—do not have to pay federal taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). State and local governments may also exempt religious and non-profit organizations from taxes that would otherwise be applied to privately owned real estate.

If religious organizations receive income from parishioners and followers, why don’t they pay federal taxes on earnings/donations like everyone else? It’s a long-standing question. If the IRS required religious organizations to pay taxes that would mean citizens would be supporting institutions and groups that they oppose or prefer not to fund. In other words, citizens should have the right to support only the religions they prefer or choose. According to many scholars, tax exemptions are basic to the free exercise of religion. Being exempt from taxes means religious institutions do not support government and government does not get entangled with religion. In addition, by being tax-exempt, religious institutions are able to provide some social services, which saves the outlay of tax funds for federal and state programs.

Although the tax-exempt status has not been denied often, it can be revoked if many of the activities of a religious organization are devoted to influencing legislation or to campaigning for candidates for public office. Religious groups, however, are allowed to support political causes, encourage voter registration, and hold nonpartisan programs to hear the views of political candidates.

According to Robert W. Wood, a Forbes magazine contributor, to receive a tax exemption, the IRS determines whether the organization has a “Distinct legal existence; Recognized creed and form of worship; Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government; Formal code of doctrine and discipline; Distinct religious history; Membership not associated with any other church or denomination; Organization of ordained ministers; Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed study; Literature of its own; Established places of worship; Regular congregations; Regular religious services; Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; Schools for preparing its members.” [1]

The IRS code “absolutely” prohibits religious institutions “from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” [2] Yet, some activities may be permitted, such as nonpartisan voter education and getting out the vote.

[1]. Robert W. Wood, “Why Churches Are The Gold Standard Of Tax-Exempt Organizations,” forbes.com, Sep 22, 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwood/2015/09/22/lets-tax-churches/#21f23ed0322b (accessed August 6, 2017)

[2]. See https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/the-restriction-of-political-campaign-intervention-by-section-501-c-3-tax-exempt-organizations, updated September 13, 2016 (accessed August 8, 2017).

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