When a King Speaks of God, when God Speaks to a King: Faith, politics, tax exempt status, and the constitution in the Clinton administration

Abstract

During the Clinton Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice broke new ground in the enforcement of the tax code's ban on "partisan political activity" by tax-exempt religious organizations. President Clinton, meanwhile, used church buildings and religious services for political campaigning and made political speeches on behalf of candidates that intertwined the political and the religious. Thus, while the Clinton Administration clarified the role of religious exercise and expression in some areas of public life, like public schools and the federal workplace, Administration activities clouded the role religion is to play in political campaigns. The roots of this tension in Administration behavior are not new. Here, President Clinton acted in accordance with political and religious norms and a constitutional interpretation that have dominated most of American history. The IRS, meanwhile, sought to give meaning to tax code provisions tied to then Senator Lyndon Johnson's efforts to neutralize political opponents. Thus, this "current" tension has been with us for nearly fifty years and has lain dormant until now only because of restraint in enforcement and timidity in practice. Now that the Clinton Administration has brought it to the surface, the tension demands resolution. This tension implicates both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. When the Federal Government requires churches committed to speaking truth in the public square to choose between publicizing their beliefs and remaining tax exempt, it burdens the free exercise of religion. For example, the Federal Government burdens free exercise when it restricts, under the tax code, the questions that churches may place on voter guides or introduce into public debate. This is true because fundamental to the mission to speak truth is the freedom to select the questions that truly matter. In addition, the Federal Government violates the Establishment Clause when it forecloses churches from attempting to serve as a conscience to power. This is so because the Establishment Clause seeks to guarantee that churches in America retain an unrestricted voice worthy of listening to. These views result both from a common understanding of the nature and pervasiveness of religion and from the political experiences of America and other nations. From Judah and Israel, across Europe, and into America, the centuries have shown that a State that is denied a moral compass does evil, and a State guided by a moral compass that has lost its integrity within the State's halls of power is worse than a State with no moral compass at all. Thus, the danger in current American political discourse is not that religious language will poison the world of politics, but that political participation will gut religious language of all truth

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