Should the Roman Catholic Church, and the various subsidiary groups and organizations that exist under its umbrella and operate at its direction, be entitled to state- and federal-tax exemptions?
A few years ago, only crackpots or militant atheists would raise such a question. But in light of the Catholic Church's high-profile role in repealing same-sex-marriage rights — first in California and now in Maine — that question no longer seems frivolous or marginal.
There is no doubt that the Catholic Church crossed the line that separates constitutionally protected religious instruction from prohibited political advocacy in its Maine fight.
A large and growing Facebook community in that state has now dedicated itself to nullifying the Church's tax-exempt status. The leading same-sex marriage defense group there is also urging citizens to file complaints with the Internal Revenue Service.
It would be fitting indeed if the patriarchal and authoritarian Church fathers were called to atone by those more traditionally minded Mainers who believe in the separation of church and state mandated by the Constitution. It is also welcoming to see that at least some in Congress are recoiling from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) pernicious intervention in the national health-care-reform debate.
A recent statement by Democratic congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of California states the case clearly:
The role the bishops played in pushing the Stupak amendment, which unfairly restricts access for low-income women to insurance coverage for abortions, was more than mere advocacy.
They seemed to dictate the finer points of the amendment, and managed to bully members of Congress to vote for added restrictions on a perfectly legal surgical procedure.
And this effort was subsidized by taxpayers, since the Council enjoys tax-exempt status.
Though a strong argument can be made that the USCCB should have its tax-exempt status revoked, that is unlikely to happen. Like the defense industry and Wall Street, the Catholic Church flexes formidable political muscle. To paraphrase the late Lenny Bruce, who was by equal measures appalled and impressed by the reach of the Vatican: they don't call it the Church for nothing.
The most effective way to negate the militantly conservative influence of the institutional Catholic Church and its newfound conservative evangelical allies is to target the laws regulating lobbying.
Religious organizations get automatic 501(c)(3) status, which essentially exempts them from most lobbying restrictions and reporting requirements that other nonprofits face. That status should not be automatic.
Like other nonprofits, religious groups should have to petition for 501(c)(3) status. If a religious group has a history of political action, that status should be denied. And if a religious group qualifies for such status but then violates the guidelines, that status should be revoked.
In this age of increasing political transparency, reporting requirements — especially as they relate to lobbying — have become more stringent. Within this context, it is outrageous that the USCCB can spend unknown amounts of money and countless hours in face-to-face lobbying time without having to disclose any of the details.
It is clearly in the national interest to know how religious groups conduct tax-exempt public activities. In a narrower sense, it is also in the interests of all religious denominations to know how the groups that work in their name operate — on the federal level, and on the state and local level, as well.