If you are opposed to any form of birth control—regardless of whether it includes contraception, the “morning after pill,” or abortion, do you believe that you should be subsidizing groups that are lobbying for it?
Those of us who support gay marriage and/or reproductive rights have been pondering these questions for some time. Atheists and the 15% (and growing) of the population who claim no religious affiliation have also been wondering about this. They go right to the core of the fairness of what are called “charitable contributions,” and who gets to use such funds.
One of the benefits that religious organizations, as well as other “do good” groups receive is favorable treatment under the tax code. This encourages people to contribute towards what is ostensibly “the public good” because their contributions are deductible when they file their taxes. In all honesty, this deduction enables congregations and other organizations to provide far more in the way of programs than we would be able to accomplish without the deduction. This goes back to the days when there was less of an official separation between church and state, and churches were charged with the task of providing moral instruction in their local communities.
Over the years, charitable status has extended to numerous other groups, such as museums, food banks, and other community organizations. Charitable status also helps fund numerous forms of medical research. All of these are important, particularly at a time when government funding is being cut. It enables all of us, as individuals, to support causes that are particularly important to us.
Unfortunately some very egregious abuses of this status in recent elections have led me to question its future. One very prominent abuse was the Mormon church’s injection of $22 million to end marriage equality in California. Some Catholic bishops have also attracted attention with various threats to deny communion to politicians who support various forms of reproductive rights, as well as their followers, and for their recent decisions to withdraw Catholic Charities from participating in the adoption process because of the bishops’ opposition to adoption by same-sex couples. Over the years, I have gotten to know numerous people who have worked for Catholic Charities. Many are non-Catholics who are more concerned about the work they are doing to help the poor and those in need than they are in the political aims of the bishops. I have to believe that many of them are cringing in embarrassment at the bishops’ actions.
The privilege of using tax exempt funds is something that all of us serving religious congregations take seriously. By law, we cannot endorse political candidates. This is not to say that we should be agnostic or silent on issues that we believe are morally important. How we use our tax exempt funds, however, should be studied. It does not take a scholar in theological ethics or moral reasoning to know that something is wrong when groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS organization are allowed to collect and use tax exempt funds. To be blunt, it cheapens the term “charitable giving” when blatantly political organizations use tax exempt funds to pay for professional lobbyists or television advertising to influence political campaigns.
The absurdity of this has been pointed out in recent weeks by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who set up their own “Super PAC” to collect money. As a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine pointed out, Colbert used some of the funds for ads supporting the National Basketball Association owners. The Super PAC, which he turned over to Stewart’s control last week, has been running ads in South Carolina, as it prepares to hold its primary election. The ads satirize the process that allows this to happen as much as they poke fun at individual candidates. As the Times article pointed out, Colbert offered to underwrite the cost of either the Democrat or Republican primaries if they would include a referendum asking whether corporations are people, or, if only people are people.
Every year, Americans give hundreds of millions of dollars to tax exempt organizations. These are funds that are not available to pay for schools, roads, our wars, or the care of veterans who will need help for the rest of their lives. In a recent online article, Martin Marty, the esteemed scholar on the interface between religion and society asks whether this practice make sense. As Marty writes, “the generally free ride given religious institutions even in a “secular time” should inspire thought: With all its contradictions, the United States remains a wonderful place in which religions can prosper. They do well when they serve the common good freely and openly.” I believe that this is more important, as well as a more appropriate use of these funds than as morally questionable ways of funneling tax exempt dollars to political action committees, or any groups that function that way…regardless of what they call themselves.