Monday, February 02, 2009

Again With the Faith-Based Initiatives...

Posting over at Volokh Conspiracy about the topic reminded me that I hadn't mentioned here that I am really pissed off that Obama has decided to continue the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. I condemned the whole idea when Bush proposed and implemented it, and it's still bad policy under the Obama administration.

It's been a while, so just as an update, I oppose government support of faith-based initiatives because the whole idea inherently involves government choosing to support one religious group over another, thereby endorsing some religions over others. Does anyone doubt that Christian groups, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish groups, will get most (if not all) the grants? Does anyone doubt that, say, Wiccan groups will have much if any chance of getting any of these grants? What if a Satanist group applied? Of course, no matter how good the proposal, Satanists will never get any of these grants. Supplying money to religious groups cannot but end up in government endorsing some religions over others.

Further, without an enormous amount of meddlesome oversight, there is no way to ensure that religious groups don't use these funds for proselytizing, or to ensure they don't proselytize those who avail themselves of government-funded faith-based programs. And, in fact, since these programs started, investigations show that, indeed, this is exactly what happens.

Besides, it's a bizarre entanglement of government and religion for government to be trying to monitor whether religious groups are proselytizing or not anyway. Religious groups should be free to proselytize all they want, and only because of the lure of government money are they even in a position where they are expected not to do so. It's like the government is bribing religious organizations not to do what they exist to do in the first place.

Let me note here that I do not think that all faith-based programs, when privately funded, are bad. Catholic Charities, for instance, does excellent work, and if any religious group deserved government support, it does. In my work with them when I was with the American Red Cross, I not only found their programs well-run and filling an important need, I saw no evidence they used the charity to push a religious agenda and I never once saw or heard of them proselytizing clients (at least locally).

But it is still an impermissible entanglement of government and religion for the government to fund Catholic Charities, no matter what I think of their work. It's a violation of both the letter and spirit of the First Amendment, and should be done away with.

Obama should close the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. He is wrong not to do so.


At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Brian C. said...

By giving tax-exempt status to religious organizations doesn’t our government already show its endorsement of certain religions. While I agree on both of your points, close the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and that some faith charities do great work, our government needs to separate itself from all religions and tax them like any other business (they provide services, take in money, and pay employees) or endorse them all with tax-exempt status (even the stupid ones based on aliens).

At 12:19 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

I almost discussed the tax-exempt issue in the post as well. But I'm not sure what the answer is about that one. There is a certain logic to the proposition that taxing religious organizations, in a sense, would interfere with the right to religious expression in the First Amendment. On the other hand, giving religious organizations tax-exempt status with restrictions as the US has done creates the same problem. The IRS can take away a church's tax-exempt status if the pastor makes any political statements from the pulpit, thus interfering with the pastor's and church's right to political expression.

But, on the other hand, as you point out, the government is inherently supporting some religions over others when it decides which ones to give tax-exempt status to. It should be none or all, despite the danger (certainty) of abuse.

So, I'm not sure if churches and religious organizations should be tax-exempt or not. Perhaps not. If we look at the First Amendment as a personal right to free religious expression, not a group right, then you could say we each have the right to worship as we please, but once we form a group to worship, the rights of the individuals don't transfer to the group. That is to say, it doesn't stop you, as an individual, from expressing and practicing your religion if your congregation having to pay taxes makes it necessary to build a slightly smaller church to worship in.

At 9:25 PM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I'm a whole lot more tolerant of religion than you are, Mark, on most issues -- but not this one. Anyone in America has the same first amendment rights. No one's rights are taken away by the removal of tax exemption. Indeed, it only places their organization in the same status as other organizations.

I can see no good reason why churches should be treated any differently than any other not-for-profit group. Because their message is theological? They aren't prevented from dispersing their message by being taxed. They aren't treated "unfairly" under such cases ... they are treated just like every other not-for-profit group.

In fact, it is the reverse: the tax exempt status FACILITATES a theological message with MY tax dollars. I'm quite strongly against that.

Though, I'm perfectly happy with the churches operating, meeting, and discussing their beliefs. Just not on my dime (or, rather, not on my UNWILLING dime).

Accepting some conditions (such as: don't endorse a particular political candidate) for the BENEFIT of tax exemption doesn't seem like an imposition on their freedom of speech to me. The first amendment concern about how this benefit is exercised is evidence that there should be no such benefit at all, in my mind ... certainly it is NOT evidence that their should be no strings attached. We attach strings to many benefits that affect speech. If we cannot accept the strings, then there should be no benefit.

P.S., Though not relevant, I feel compelled to dispel the myth that pastors enjoy any tax exemption: They do not. Trust me, I know. Indeed, most churches treat pastors as "self employed", which means they end up having to pay both sides of FICA ... so, in some sense, their tax situation is worse than many of us.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger mooglar said...


Other non-profit and not-for-profit groups are untaxed as well. The American Red Cross, for instance, is tax exempt. But the rules for other tax exempt non-profits are more complicated than for religious organizations.

To your second point, I know, trust me. The American Red Cross is tax exempt, but I still had to pay taxes when I worked for them. Organizations can be tax exempt but their employees always still have to pay tax.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I realize that certain not-for-profit groups are untaxed; however, they have guidelines to follow to retain that status. My point is why except churches from any strings simply on the basis that they are religious.

A more pointed question is: If the Red Cross began to spend resources advocating Obama during the election, what would have happened to their tax-exempt status?

In fact, as an employee of the state of FL, I cannot use my position or University resources to advocate for a political candidate. This is reasonable.

Those who advocate that churches should not be obliged to accept any restrictions for that benefit are essentially asking to be treated differently, and I believe this is entirely unreasonable.

The mere fact that we have a discussion wherein we consider churches separately from other NPGs suggests that they shouldn't even be given the status to begin with. If we believe religious groups carry some special weight such that we are concerned with the government interfering with their message by holding the exemption "over their head" (more so than other NPGs), the simple solution is just to not give them the exemption at all.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger mooglar said...


Okay, truth be told, yes, I would be happy as pie to take away tax exemptions from churches. And I actually want to go with the argument that taxing churches isn't a violation of the 1st Amendment. Though I don't think religion should get special consideration or exemption in the law, the 1st Amendment does make a church, for instance, different than a group like the American Red Cross doing disaster relief. The right to give out disaster relief isn't specifically spelled out in the Bill of Rights, but the right to freedom of religion is.

I want to go with your argument, I really do. But I'm not convinced that the government couldn't and wouldn't use taxation (or lack thereof) to try to influence churches and thereby get church entangled with state.

I'd rather we just didn't have churches and so didn't have to worry about it. But, as it is, while I really want to agree with you, I'm just not sure you are right.

But please note that I am not sure you are wrong, either. You may well be. I've not been able to untangle the issue sufficiently to have a solid position on it, which is why I didn't mention it in the body of the original post. I can't decide if taxing churches is okay or not.

So, I'm not exactly disagreeing with you, Paul, I'm just not as convinced by your arguments as I want to be. I want you to be right, but I'm just not sure. I'm not sure the counter-arguments right, though, either.

Argh. This is why I didn't post on this in the first place. I know what I want to be right. I just haven't been able to convince myself that the position I want to take is right.

I'm going to stop now.

At 1:02 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

In the above comment, I meant that you "may well be" right, not that you may well be wrong, as the post implies.

Should have previewed.

At 10:38 PM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I understand the sticky wicket. But surely the government cannot leverage taxation (or tax exemption) over a church if the church isn't permitted such exemption in the first place, right?

Actually, I think the fact that the first amendment singles religion out gives the government just cause not to exempt churches from taxation. That is: Because we believe religion is "something special", we should make sure the government doesn't have the ability to manipulate it in particular. The easiest way to do that is simply to treat them like any tax-paying organization, subject to nothing but the law itself.

The flip side of this is to say, "Ah, well, they are not-for-profit groups, so they should get those benefits just like other NPGs". If so, then they should abide by the same general guidelines.

But proponents of this exemption want their cake and to have eaten it too. They want to get the benefit (not the right, mind you) of tax exemption, and also not get the strings that are typically attached.

Not only is that not reasonable, but I'm convinced it is specifically NOT constitutional. That is, to except churches, the government must explicitly treat them differently from other NPOs, which is BY DEFINITION involving government in religion.

Let's flip the tables. Why shouldn't ANY non-profit re-constitute themselves as a religion to enjoy the same strings-free tax exemption? Ah, because some aren't "really" churches ... which are, which aren't?

NOW we MUST dive into free speech issues. My way, there's no need whatsoever: Either the same laws that apply to any profit-making organization apply to churches, or the same laws that apply to any not-for profit organizations do. So the fact that it is a church needn't even factor in. This PROTECTS churches, not hinders them.


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