Opinion: Cornerstone Church isn’t risking its tax-exempt status by hosting the ReAwaken America tour
Calm down, people. I see your comments on social media.
Paul Doyle and Cornerstone Church in Batavia aren’t compromising the church’s tax-exempt status by hosting the ReAwaken America tour, no matter how political you think the event is.
And no matter how obnoxious you may find it.
The activity is protected by the First Amendment, and it’s good for all of us.
Here’s what the IRS says about political activity and nonprofit status:
- the organization must be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational, scientific or other charitable purposes;
- the net profit cannot benefit any individual or shareholder;
- no substantial part of its activity may attempt to influence legislation;
- the organization cannot intervene in political campaigns; and
- the objectives and activities of the organization must not be illegal or violate fundamental public order.
The First Amendment protects free speech and was written with the specific intent of protecting political speech.
From the earliest days of the republic, churches were given tax-exempt status due to the belief that religious institutions should be free from government entanglement.
The Establishment Clause goes two ways: no government imposed religious beliefs on individuals and no government interference in religion.
Taxation leads to government entanglement. Think for a moment of the damage an unsavory government agency could do if it had auditing or enforcement power over churches.
Tax-exempt status is not a charitable contribution by the government to religious organizations, or even an attempt to help them earn more money to serve a mission that benefits society (although that is part of it) . It is primarily designed to prevent the government from interfering with religious freedom.
We lose sight of this original intent because religious organizations operate under the same tax-exempt status as all other nonprofit organizations. This is by design because, again, the government must remain neutral on the issue of religious freedom, and by applying the same rules to religious organizations and secular organizations, it ensures that neutral and objective standards are applied equally.
The IRS is very clear: support candidates, push for legislation, and you engage in impermissible political activity.
But no nonprofit is barred from hosting a political event or speaking out on political issues (although most are loath to do so for fear of the IRS). Such a ban would violate the First Amendment rights of the organization and its members.
But the government, through the IRS, has created a firewall between nonprofits and political campaigns to prevent potential corruption, potential political abuse of nonprofit status non-profit.
There are some in the church community, like Pastor Jim Garlow at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, California (a church I used to attend many years ago when John Maxwell was a pastor), who believe the IRS rule infringes on religious freedom.
The problem with Garlow’s position on changing the IRS rule just for churches is that it would diminish the concept of equal treatment of all nonprofits. This could lead to the end of all bans on campaigning and lobbying for nonprofits if the IRS is to remain neutral in how it enforces these rules.
Without governmental neutrality, religious freedom is threatened.
That’s why Cornerstone Church’s political activity this week is one we should all champion if we truly cherish our freedoms. We may find some of the speech content offensive and hateful. We can consider the ideas put forward by some of the speakers as a threat to our democratic republic. But everything is freedom of expression. And the best defense against speech that we find distasteful is more speech. This is not about calling on the government to censor speakers or using the government to deprive them of their platform.
Even though Donald Trump’s name is mentioned, he is not currently an official candidate for any office, so speaking favorably of Trump is not a violation of the IRS rule. Of course, even if he was a candidate, speakers in a religious place can still speak favorably of him without telling people to vote for him (an endorsement). There is no evidence that Tour speakers are using the Tour to call for legislative changes (the other IRS part of the rule). Although there are many prayers and praise in the remarks from the rally, it is clearly a political rally, but a constitutionally protected political rally.
Under IRS rules and the Bill of Rights, that’s OK.
On social media, links to the IRS complaint site have been repeatedly posted by some people. It’s ironic that people who think the speakers at ReAwaken America want to impose some kind of dictatorship are calling on the rest of us to use the power of the state to try to silence our political opponents. This calls for government censorship and it is just as reprehensible as any belief anyone may have about what these speakers stand for.
If you don’t like the Tour, use your right to free speech to express yourself. Organize your own rallies and press conferences, as some have done. Feel free to say you don’t want RATs in our community because you think that makes our community racist, uneducated and backward (if that’s what you believe). Tell Paul Doyle he shouldn’t have brought RAT to Batavia (if that’s what you believe). But don’t expect the government to shut down an event or organization you don’t like. It’s just authoritarianism under another banner.