Stripping churches of non-profit status will backfire

At the intersection of Church and State Streets in Salem, Oregon.
At the intersection of Church and State Streets in Salem, Oregon.

Now that the Supreme Court has declared that states must recognize same-sex marriages, supporters of the decision are again starting to push hard to strip any organization that opposes it of non-profit status. The idea of using taxation as a weapon against ideological opponents is nothing new. Neither is it new for religious institutions to be the target of this weapon. What would be new is the outcome of success. This is starting to look very much like a classic case of “be careful what you wish for”.

The first big problem will be the targeting of such a change. Any law written specifically to target religiously-based organizations will run smack-dab into giant First Amendment issues. As much as opponents of churches will crow about keeping them out of government, this would be the equally prohibited converse: government making laws about religions. The only feasible change would be to eliminate the tax-exempt status of all non-profits, a change that would anger as many people on the left as the right.

So let’s say that such a change does go through. A lot of charitable organizations currently subsisting on their meager contributions will probably go out of business entirely. I have no doubt that many smaller churches would also be forced to close up shop. Tens or possibly hundreds of millions of Americans used to getting tax write-offs for charitable giving will see their taxes rise. A tax increase coupled with killing off employers is a one-two punch of bad economic policy.

But what happens to the ones left standing? The 501(c)(3) restrictions on political speech are now effectively gone. In the face of the Citizen’s United decision, you’ve now created a large number of angry people and organizations allowed to spend whatever they want on politics, advocate in unlimited ways for issues, and make endorsements in partisan political races. Once they get a taste of unrestricted and unrestrained participation in the political process, do you think they’d go back to the old way?

As much as you might bemoan the tax breaks for religious non-profits, you’re buying something you otherwise could not: their silence on partisan politics and extreme caution on issue advocacy. Is it worth giving that up to try and enact a punitive measure on a group you dislike?

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