Memo to Lou Dobbs: Separation of Church and State 101
DonByrd printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri May 11, 2007 at 04:54:19 PM EST
Sometimes I think CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has so much illegal immigration on the brain that it muddies up some of his neurons. When it comes to his understanding of "the separation of church and state," I'd like to respond by quoting the immortal words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: "I do not think that means what you think it means."  Read on...
Here's Dobbs panicking over the call of many religious leaders to support comprehensive immigration reform:
The separation of church and state in this country is narrowing. And it is the church, not the state that is encroaching. Our Constitution protects religion from the intrusion or coercion of the state. But we have precious little protection against the political adventurism of all manner of churches and religious organizations.
The nation's religious leaders seem hell-bent on ignoring the separation of church and state when it comes to the politically charged issue of illegal immigration.

And in his show this week he offered many jewels like this one:
Many of the nation's religious leaders are ignoring or pushing back or just simply -- simply negating the idea of a separation of church and state in the argument over our illegal immigration crisis.

The separation of church and state - housed in the US Constitution, no matter what religious right leaders tell you (right, Rev. Walker?) - offers 2 fundamental protections: 1) prohibits the government from promoting/coercing religion, and 2) prohibits the government from infringing on religious exercise.

Dobbs gets it exactly wrong. If anything, the separation of church and state protects the rights of churches and religious organizations to speak out on the issues of the day with a prophetic voice. To paraphrase James Dunn, one of the reasons we don't want the arms of the church and state to be in too tight an embrace is precisely so the church can have some swinging room.

What Lou might be thinking about are IRS rules that regulate tax-exempt organizations - including churches - in 2 areas: 1) engaging in political campaigns and 2) lobbying for or against legislation.

The rules against electioneering are straightforward: don't do it. The rules about lobbying have more shades of gray. Here is what they say:

In general, no organization, including a church, may qualify for IRC section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). An IRC section 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.

Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive offices), or by the public in a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies.
Whether a church's or religious organization's attempts to influence legislation constitute a substantial part of its overall activities is determined on the basis of all the pertinent facts and circumstances in each case. The IRS considers a variety of factors, including the time devoted (by both compensated and volunteer workers) and the expenditures devoted by the organization to the activity, when determining whether the lobbying activity is substantial.

It's not the religion per se of the organization that makes lobbying problematic; it's the non-profit, tax-exempt status. All 501(c)(3) organizations operate under this same "substantial part" test. Religious organizations may lobby Congress, so long as they don't do too much of it, and they can lobby the executive and judicial branches to their hearts' content. So, even if a religious institution engages in improper amounts of lobbying, they haven't directly violated the Constitution. They would have violated their agreement with the Internal Revenue Service.

That would still be serious, for sure, for the religious organization. And if overdone they may have also violated the spirit of church-state separation, in the same way that, say, a journalist who constantly espouses his personal view may have violated the spirit of journalistic objectivity and integrity.

But of all the encroachments on religious liberty we see today, are the urgings of ministers who want to protect the poor and disenfranchised as part of their central mission really, as Dobbs says, "threatening one of our most important constitutional principles, and one of this nation's fundamental doctrines, the separation of church and state?" That's, well, inconceivable.

Sure, we don't want religion becoming a purely political agent - nor should we abide a religious viewpoint dominating or controlling the actions of government. But, in general, religion and politics need not remain separate, and certainly not in the way church and state must. We shouldn't confuse the 2 concerns.

[Cross-posted from the blog of the Baptist Joint Committee]


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