It turns out that Republicans can play the game of “You have to pass it to find out what’s in it” too.
Buried in the bowels of the 2017 tax bill is a provision that will slap a 21 percent tax on churches for certain benefits they provide to employees. Yes, 21 percent. And this particular provision was buried so deep that it has just come to the surface in the last month.
Now the tax bill isn’t as bad as the 22,300-page monstrosity of Obamacare which was so obtuse that NPR was forced to publish a story under the headline, Just Because A Bill Is Long Doesn't Mean It's Bad. But at 500 pages for the bill itself and 600 pages for the conference report that tells you what it will do, at 304,000 words it’s pretty hefty.
The troublesome provision was likely intended to level the playing field between for-profit hospitals and non-profit hospitals on provided benefits like paid parking and help with transportation costs. Many hospitals are located in densely populated urban areas where parking is at a premium. For-profit hospitals apparently were forced to pay taxes on such benefits while non-profit hospitals weren’t.
Somebody in there decided to impose this tax on every non-profit organization in the country, specifically including churches for some reason. Let’s remember that this bill was passed on strict party lines - all 51 Republicans voted for it and all 48 Democrats present voted against it. So the Republicans did this to us.
The odd thing is that the only congressmen who seem exercised about this most dangerous precedent are Democrats, many of who are active in and even pastors of, black churches. The Republicans who represent us, on the other hand, are blasé and apathetic about repealing this provision at all.
As McClatchy reported, “Republicans’ appetite to act seems tepid.” “Tepid” means “lukewarm,” the temperature of the water that Jesus promised to spew out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16.) The typical response of GOP legislators is that the bill will affect very few churches. That’s not the point. The fact that it will affect even one church is. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., a threat to religious liberty anywhere is a threat to religious liberty everywhere.
One Republican assured McClatchy that it wouldn’t be, in McClatchy’s words, a “widespread problem.” Well, a problem that isn’t “widespread” is still a problem. And there is every likelihood the cancer will expand its creep, as government power is wont to do, consuming religious liberty at every advance.
The Johnson Amendment of 1954 was a bill that wasn’t even targeted at churches at all but wound up harming every one of them. It was tacked on to a bill by then-senator Lyndon Johnson to take a strip out of the hide of political non-profits who had campaigned against him in his re-election campaign. But since churches are non-profits, the anti-liberty left pounced on it and threatened every church in America with extinction if they so much as expressed a political thought.
Cowed by the real or imagined threat, churches withdrew from the political arena virtually altogether, and America slid toward the moral abyss we are in today with no salt or night in the public arena. Only the black church, inspired by Dr. King, stayed active in politics, and the result was the end of legal racial segregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One can only wonder what the American landscape would look like today if the evangelical church in particular had been as active then as they are today.
Weirdly, perhaps for the first time in my life, I stand unreservedly with the Congressional Black Caucus. Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina has crafted a bill that will fix the problem. He has 31 co-sponsors, none of them Republicans.
But Republicans better get their minds right in a hurry. “This is an issue that will not go away,” said Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. “When you stir up 400,000 houses of worship, and then hundreds of thousands of nonprofits on top of that, you have a pretty mighty force that is going to get attention on this issue.”
Churches in America have always been tax exempt, out of a recognition that they are not businesses but houses of worship, and in regard for the many contributions churches make to the health of their communities, not the least of which is teaching their parishioners how to be good citizens.
Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” contrary to popular myth, was not intended to restrict the political influence of the church. It was intended rather to protect the church from the interference of the state. Well, Republicans just punched a hole in Jefferson’s wall, and they’d better get busy repairing it.