The protests over Notre Dame University’s decision to have President Obama address its graduates illustrates the absurdity of tax exemption for religious institutions. Obviously, the vast majority of America’s religious leaders have abandoned any pretense of political neutrality. And, according to the IRS, political activism is a no-no for tax-exempt religious organizations. (For example, the IRS warned All Saints Episcopal Church in Los Angeles that it could lose its tax-exempt status because of an anti-war sermon a guest preacher gave on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.)
And the idea that “churches” exist purely for the public good without any intent of making a profit is nonsense. The Roman Catholic Church has amassed great wealth over many centuries. And television “evangelists” have used the Word of God to make themselves filthy rich.
The Notre Dame protesters cite Obama’s support for abortion rights and his decision to federally fund stem cell research. But why should that matter? They are free under the U.S. constitution to profess and abide by the doctrine of their church; they are not free to force their beliefs on others. As I understand it, President Obama personally abhors abortion but recognizes the Constitutional right (confirmed by Roe vs. Wade) of a woman to make her own reproductive choices. That seems perfectly reasonable to me, regardless of my personal feelings about some abortion procedures.
Recriminations against Notre Dame’s invitation to the President have echoed across the Internet, on cable television and in newspaper editorial pages. Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk is supporting the stand taken by Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend (where Notre Dame is located). D’Arcy is boycotting Obama’s Notre Dame address, scheduled for today.
Catholic leaders argue that the President’s support for abortion rights makes him an unacceptable choice for such an honor. The Roman Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations hold that abortion (and, by extension, the use of embryos for stem cell research) amounts to the destruction of human life, and should be banned by law. That’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it. Churches that subscribe to this view may choose to ban abortion among their members. But they have no Constitutional right to tell non-members how to live their lives. It’s called “religious freedom,” and it extends to freedom from religion as well.
Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, is commendably sticking to his decision to have Obama address the graduates. Notre Dame professes to be a “university” and religious bigotry has no place in an educational institution. To me, the idea that “universities” may choose to promote a particular set of moral views is ridiculous on its face. Surely, a university should be an environment for “universal” exploration, where students and teachers seek the truth – or at least enlightenment – no holds barred.
It’s obviously time for Congress to examine tax exemption for churches – which is not decreed in the Constitution. While the Constitution does not provide special benefits for “religious” organizations, it does decree the separation of Church and State. And tax exemptions are, in effect, the same as federal subsidies.
Photo shows Catholic clergy leading an anti-abortion protest Saturday in South Bend, Indiana. The protesters objected to the selection of President Barack Obama as the Notre Dame Commencement speaker.