The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” If you have been unlucky enough to have caught a televised presidential press briefing while stuck at home during this current pandemic, I’m sure you have seen our president openly, and embarrassingly, challenge the freedom of the press in many of his more infantile public moments. While our president and his enablers continue to shamelessly disregard the second half of this specific amendment, they are working equally as hard to dismantle the first half as well.
Religious organizations in the U.S. have been enjoying the benefits of exemption beginning in 1913 when churches, along with religious and charitable organizations, were deemed tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code 501 (c) (3). This established a precedent among religious organizations and set the stage for a barrage of assaults against our constitution, further blurring the separation of church and state.
The notion that a religious organization’s “divineness” is qualification for economic and political exemption has infiltrated our collective milieu as we continue to see a rise in challenges to our First Amendment. A bakery that refuses to sell its cakes to homosexuals can skirt around any charge of discrimination by seeking religious exemptions or a health care provider can choose not to provide birth control or medical treatment to certain patients by hiding behind religious exemptions…the battle to distort and dilute our constitution rolls on.
After the novel coronavirus outbreak, many religious organizations applied for and received funds under the Cares Act as part of the government’s small business stimulus program. Most recently, religious organizations have been seeking exemptions pertaining to restrictions on public gatherings, making the argument that churches are essential services. President Trump jumped into this quandary in an obvious attempt to grab the Christian vote through hijacking the term “essential” and applying it to religious organizations. This comes after reports of increased exposure to the coronavirus have been directly linked to church services. A church in Butte County may have exposed 180 members to the coronavirus during a service on Mother’s Day.
Why should religious organizations and churches be exempt from protecting the public during a global pandemic, especially when they provide services to a demographic most likely to be at higher risk for developing complications and dying from the disease? Why would organizations who benefit from tax exemptions be eligible for government funds which were generated from public taxes? Clearly, our government has been respecting establishments of religion and not upholding our First Amendment by abandoning its role of active observer and assuming the role of active enabler.
If we are to continue allowing the dismantling of our First Amendment to sustain the level of entitlement many religious organizations have developed as a result of our economic and political enabling, then let’s treat them as any other business organization and have them pay their fair share. George Carlin famously said during one of his stand-up routines, “If holy people are so interested in politics, government, and public policy, let them pay the price of admission like everybody else.” If religious organizations are taking government money, influencing public discourse and policy, and receiving economic and political immunity, it is high time they contribute to the economic pool they have no problem taking from. We need to ascribe an equal level of accountability among all organizations (religious and non-religious) by abolishing all tax exemptions as well as public and political exemptions too. It’s time to start charging admission.