I once had dinner, twenty years ago, with Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and so learned firsthand that a fanatic doesn’t have to be wild-eyed and spittle-spewing, but can seem like a normal, reasonable person. Fanaticism also seems to supply amazing stamina, as Lynn has now spent decades laboring tirelessly in the bad cause of chasing religion, in any and all manifestations, out of the public square.
All this came to mind thanks to a fine editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, calling attention to Lynn’s apparent success in persuading the Internal Revenue Service to threaten the tax exemption of churches if their clergy give sermons that say much of anything about political issues. The Constitution does not oblige the government to exempt churches from taxation. But neither does it oblige the government to freeze churches out of political debate as the price of a tax exemption. That was a legislative choice, currently embodied in statutory language dating from 1954. The trouble, as the Journal points out, is that “what constitutes political activity” is very ill-defined. And so churches are the victims of the waxing and waning enthusiasms for crackdowns at the IRS.
Thanks also to the Journal for pointing to the way out of this nonsense, in legislation that Congressman Walter Jones (R.-NC) has proposed, the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act,” or H.R. 235. May Mr. Jones get some co-sponsors soon.