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Opinion: Cornerstone Church is not risking its tax-exempt status by hosting the ReAwaken America Tour

By Howard B. Owens

Calm down, people. I see your comments on social media. 

Paul Doyle and Cornerstone Church in Batavia are not jeopardizing the church's tax-exempt status by hosting the ReAwaken America Tour, no matter how political you may believe the event to be.

And no matter how odious you may find it.

The activity is protected by the First Amendment, and that is 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;
  • net earnings may not inure to the benefit of any private individual or shareholder;
  • no substantial part of its activity may be attempting to influence legislation;
  • the organization may not intervene in political campaigns; and
  • the organization’s purposes and activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy. 

The First Amendment protects free speech and was written with the specific intention of protecting political speech.

From the earliest days of the republic, churches received tax-exempt status because of the belief that religious institutions should be free from government entanglement.

The Establishment Clause cuts two ways -- no government-mandated religious belief for individuals and no government interference in religion.  

Taxation leads to government entanglement.  Think for a moment about the damage an unsavory government agency could do if it had an audit or enforcement power over churches.  

Tax-exempt status isn't some government charitable contribution to religious organizations, or even an attempt to help them make more money to serve some mission that benefits society (though that is part of it).  It's primarily designed to keep the government from interfering with religious freedom.

We lose sight of that original intention because religious organizations operate under the same tax-exempt status as every other nonprofit organization.  That is by design because, again, the government must remain neutral on the question of religious freedom, and by applying the same rules to religious organizations and secular organizations, they ensure neutral, objective standards are being applied equally.

The IRS is very clear -- endorse candidates, lobby for legislation, and you're engaged in impermissible political activity.  

But no nonprofit is prohibited from hosting a political event or speaking out on political matters (though most are loathe to do so out of fear of the IRS).  Such a prohibition would violate the First Amendment rights of the organization and its members.

But the government, through IRS, has created a firewall between nonprofits and political campaigns to prevent potential corruption, the potential abuse for political purposes of nonprofit status.

There are some in the religious community, such as Pastor Jim Garlow, at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif. (a church I used to attend many, many years ago, when John Maxwell was pastor), who believe that the IRS rule violates 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.  That could lead to the end of all prohibitions on campaigning and lobbying for nonprofits if the IRS is to remain neutral in how it enforces such rules.

Without government neutrality, religious freedom is jeopardized.

Which is why Cornerstone Church's political activity this week is an activity we should all defend if we really cherish our liberties.  We may find some of the content of the speeches offensive and odious. We may see the ideas advanced by some of the speakers as a threat to our democratic republic.  But it's all free speech.  And the best defense against speech we find distasteful is more speech. It is not calling on the government to censor the speakers or using the government to deprive them of their platform.

As much as Donald Trump's name gets bandied about, he is not currently an official candidate for any office, so speaking favorably about Trump is not a violation of the IRS rule. Of course, even if he was a candidate, speakers in a religious venue can still speak favorably of him without telling people to vote for him (an endorsement).  There is no evidence that speakers at the Tour are using the Tour to call for legislative changes (the other IRS portion of the rule).  While there is a lot of pray and praise in the remarks at the rally, it is clearly a political rally, but a Constitutionally protected political rally.

By the terms of IRS rules and the Bill of Rights, that's OK.

On social media, links to the IRS's 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 sort of dictatorship are calling on the rest of us to use the power of the state to try and shut up their political opponents.  That's calling for government censorship and that is just as objectionable as any belief anybody may have about what these speakers stand for.

If you don't like the Tour, use your free speech right to speak out. Hold your own rallies and press conferences, as some have done. Feel free to say you don't want RAT in our community because you think it makes our community look racist, uneducated, and backward (if that's what you believe).  Tell Paul Doyle he shouldn't have brought RAT into Batavia (if that's what you believe). But don't expect the government to shut down an event or organization you don't like. That's just authoritarianism under another banner.

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