Free at Last . . . Free at Last *
"It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm
and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." — Galatians 5:1
“Free at last . . . Free at last.” So said former Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan to the cheers and applause of those at a meeting of the National Urban League.
On that occasion, however, Mr. Jordan was NOT referring to civil rights advancements for blacks — rather, he was celebrating his freedom from the choke collar attached to a very short leash held by the federal government on the free speech rights of this country’s charitable organizations.
Mr. Jordan said that when he was the President of the Urban League, he often felt “enslaved” by the rules and regulations applicable to “charitable” entities given tax-free status under Internal Revenue Code §501(c)(3). But now, because he is no longer an “official” associated with the Urban League, he feels, in his words, “emancipated” to freely express his political views.
Under the IRS’s rules, regulations and guidelines, a §501(c)(3) organization “may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates” and “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elective public office.” Further, leaders of such organizations cannot make “partisan” comments in any official organization publications or at official functions, and “indirect participation” in a political campaign includes such things as contributing funds to a campaign or issuing position statements on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate.
Why is this a problem? Because most faith-based organizations (i.e. churches) in this country are tax exempt under §501(c)(3). Consequently their valuable input into the political debate surrounding many important social and political issues is effectively silenced. Whereas, the free speech rights of those who would oppose faith-based views — e.g. the DNC, Bill Maher, Alec Baldwin, Elton John and John Podesta -- are not subject to any similar restraint.
the purpose for which churches are offered the exemption in the first place is to effectively buy their silence.Or is it because church leaders have found it convenient to avail themselves of that excuse to avoid their having to address issues that may offend a church demographic upon which their churches have become dependent for their funding — that donor group within the body that insists upon not being bothered with having to hear what God may actually think about certain cultural issues?
Regardless of which cause induces their silence, however, the net effect is the same — the churches have voluntarily surrendered their freedom to speak freely due to their enslavement to the almighty dollar.
Looking forward, however, how can this yoke of bondage be removed? It really is quite simple. Churches should first acknowledge that the free speech choke collar imposed upon them by 501(c)(3) is self-imposed. Should they choose it to be otherwise, churches are free to bite the bullet — surrender the exemption, pay the taxes and risk the departure of a significant donor group , but in exchange obtain the right to freely express their Christian political opinions, beliefs and preferences in the course of their services of worship.
Consider the publicity that might be generated by a church having the courage to declare its intent to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (taxes) and to render to God what is God’s (publicly proclaim our obedience to his commandments and precepts). Who knows? Perhaps tomorrow’s headline would read:
“CHURCH ELECTS TO PAY TAXES RATHER THAN SURRENDER ITS UNALIENABLE RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH”
What recourse would the government have? I cannot imagine the government would want the next day’s headline to read:
“I.R.S. DENIES CHURCH’S REQUEST TO PAY TAXES IN ORDER TO RECLAIM ITS RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH”
Yet, even if that were to be the case, so what? At least the elephant in the room will have been acknowledged by all parties — Moreover, those church leaders who do have such courage to value their right to speak freely over money, will not find themselves one day in the position of having to try to explain to God why they remained silent in the face of things like, say the deaths of over 40,000,000 unborn infants, only to learn too late that the loss of a tax exemption is not an excuse their God will find acceptable.
So, at least in that sense, such leaders will be able to say truthfully they are ... "Free at Last ... Free at Last."
* [EDITOR'S NOTE: This op-ed was first published in 2005 by the Santa Monica Daily Press under Mr. Nichols' weekly column entitled The Witness Stand]
© 2005–2016 Clifford C. Nichols. Cliff Nichols is an attorney licensed to practice law in both California and New Mexico. He may be contacted at cnicholslaw.com.