In March 2017, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said, “Judge [Neil] Gorsuch understands the protections set forth in our Constitution, including the separation of powers, federalism and the Bill of Rights.”
Capito issued that statement before voting to approve then-President Donald Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
She was wrong. Gorsuch has gone on to become a controversial judge, overturning precedent, even though he said he wouldn’t during confirmation hearings. In my opinion, he also ignored separation of church and state, as his siding with the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was likely inspired more by his Catholic faith than established law.
The First Amendment of the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” However, within the current iteration of the GOP, in West Virginia and the rest of the country, there appears to be significant sentiment that there should be no meaningful separation of church and state.
The current Supreme Court, nominated primarily by George W. Bush and Trump, is unlike any in my memory. It is composed of six very religious Catholics. At least five of them are using their religious beliefs to define public policy via their overturning of precedent. That should worry all patriotic Americans, regardless of political party or religious affiliation.
Looking back at American history, patriots have worried about government intruding on churches (and vice versa). Take Roger Williams, for example. He spoke up against the Puritan practice of interlocking church and state in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1635, the Puritan courts banished him for advocating separation. He then started the Providence Colony, founded on the concept of religious freedom, to preserve the independence of the church.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Ten years later, after much debate, the Virginia General Assembly finally adopted it. Jefferson’s rationale was that the law protected the religious freedom of “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and [the] infidel of every denomination.”
A young James Madison supported Jefferson, stating: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
The statute stated: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” In fact, in Virginia, tax money previously was used to support the Episcopal Church (previously the Church of England) to the exclusion of other denominations.
But, in 2022, a good case can be made for government taxing churches that engage in nonreligious endeavors designed to influence legislation. Churches are generally considered by the U.S. government to be nonprofit, charitable entities and, therefore, tax exempt. As opposed to just about every other aspect of American life, the Internal Revenue Service tends to leave churches alone, giving them an automatic exemption.
The unanswered question centers on whether churches are always acting as charities. For example, getting back to the anti-abortion crusade, the Catholic Church has been front and center in that political fight nationwide. Nearly $3 million was contributed by the Archdiocese of Kansas City alone on lobbying to remove a woman’s right to an abortion from the state constitution in Kansas. The church lost that fight when 59% of Kansas voters decided against modifying their constitution.
The IRS states: “A 501©3 organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.” In my mind, spending $3 million in Kansas to advocate against a women’s right to choose is “too much.”
To me, the question then becomes why the government should let the church spend excessive money on lobbying and not tax them. Shouldn’t they be taxed on the funds they spent?
Churches made $128.17 billion via contributions in 2019. What if we taxed that figure? Let’s say, at 10%. That would give us $13 billion going to support our government’s programs (like Medicaid for the needy) instead of going to lobbying against aspects of health care (like abortion and contraception) that the church disagrees with.
Perhaps not all of that money raised by churches should be taxed. But certainly, the portion of it that goes towards political lobbying should. But the IRS will not do it unless it is directed to do so by either the president, Congress or a Supreme Court decision. We know where the Supreme Court stands and, unfortunately, I hear no one in either party in Congress addressing the issue.