Sunday, November 02, 2008

Deception, campaigns and tax-exemption.

The Los Angeles Times has published a hard-hitting editorial about how the Yes on 8 campaign has used deception, distortion and deceit to push their initiative to mandate discrimination within California’s constitution. This primarily Mormon-funded campaign has been, in my opinion, the most dishonest campaign that I have ever witnessed. And when you consider the sort of political campaigns that are routinely run that is saying a lot.

The Times compared the Yes on 8 campaign to magicians who try to distract the audience so that they are looking in the wrong place. “Look at anything except what Proposition 8 is actually about: a group of people who are trying to impose on the state their belief that homosexuality is immoral and that gays and lesbians are not entitled to be treated equally under the law.”

The editorial says that the reason for this deception is simple: the truth “would never sell in tolerant, live-and-let-live California, and so it has been hidden behind a series of misleading half-truths.” The Times then discussed some of the lies which this blog has documented as well.

One lie, which was not discussed here deals with the claim by the Religious Right that gay marriage forced a Catholic charity in Massachusetts to shut down because it wouldn’t place children in gay families.

The Times writes:
The Proposition 8 campaign, funded in large part by Mormons who were urged to do so by their church, does not mention that the Mormon church's adoption arm in Massachusetts is still operating, even though it does not place children in gay and lesbian households.
The Times explains the reason that the Catholic charity stopped placing children and it wasn’t gay marriage. First, the charity itself did place children in gay families and did so willingly until the moral hypocrites that run the Catholic Church stepped in and forced them to stop. That, however, created a problem. The charity “acted as a state contractor, receiving state and federal money to find homes for special-needs children who were wards of the state....”

This is critical. The charity was acting as an agent for the state, not as a private agency. The Mormon adoption agency is entirely private and continues to operate as they wish.

While libertarians acknowledge the right of private discrimination this right does not, and can not, apply to the State. Private agencies may discriminate because they face competition which mitigates the harm which they do. Victims of discrimination may find alternatives in the marketplace. Government, however, is a monopolistic entity which uses coercion to fund itself. It exists with the money that it takes from us. The ability to find alliterative agencies to government is, in fact, limited by the government itself.

There is no option as to whether or not one supports the State. Thus the State can not enjoy the same right to discriminate that private entities have. Catholic Charities had three options in Massachusetts. They could continue to consume tax funds and offer adoptions without this sort of discrimination. They could refuse tax funds and deny adoptions to gay couples. Or they could close down adoptions altogether. The charity chose the last course of action. This was partially done in protest against their church leaders interfering with how they conducted adoptions.

The Mormon-run agency, LDS Family Services “runs a private adoption service without funding. Its work and its ability to follow its religious teachings, have not been altered.” The claim that gay marriage interfered in this case is wholly and completely false. What was at stake was whether this charity could received tax funds, act as an agent for the state, and then deny some taxpayers equal treatment when it comes to spending the money they took from them. Refuse the tax funds and act as you wish, accept the tax funds and you become a state agent and lose the right to freedom of association.

The Times also dissects a second incident which the Yes on 8 campaign has been lying about. This dealt with a beach-front pavilion in New Jersey. This pavilion was not a church though it was owned by a non-profit Methodist agency. Normally this sort of property would pay taxes on the same basis of other private property. It wouldn’t enjoy a tax exemption. But the Methodists went to the state and asked for an exemption on the basis that the property “was open for public use and access”. They quite explicitly denied that they were private and said they were “public” and open to everyone. On that premise they received a tax exemption and the property was made available to various faiths and individuals on a non-discriminatory basis -- until a gay couple asked to use it. At that point the pavilion owners suddenly wanted to be “private” and exert the rights of private owners. The Times explained:
The court ruled against the non-profit, not because gay rights trump religious rights but because public land has to be open to everyone or it's not public. The ruling does not affect churches' religious tax exemptions or their freedom to marry whom they please on their private property, just as Catholic priests do not have to perform marriages for divorced people and Orthodox synagogues can refuse to provide space for the weddings of interfaith couples.
The pavilion owners were caught in their own contradiction. They wanted to be considered “public” when it came to taxation and private when it came to discrimination.

All of this begs one important question: if coercive government exists and is using its powers to confiscate private wealth in the form of taxes, should religious bodies be exempt from that process? Religious bodies in the US are now heavily involved in manipulating the political climate to attempt to force government to spend tax funds in particular ways. These organizations constantly lobby for expanded government programs. Left-wing churches push for more welfare spending and Right-wing churches want the state to spend funds to ram conservative morality down the throats of the public.

Yet both are exempt from having to pay for the programs for which they lobby. One truism about politics is that individuals tend to lobby for bigger, more intrusive government, when they can pass the costs onto others. Religions in America have become a major political lobby for an intrusive state precisely because they are exempt from paying for the programs they promote. For them, its a free ride, they get the “benefits” they lobby for, while forcing others to pay the costs. One has to wonder whether religious bodies would be so keen for big government if they had to actually pay taxes.

Conservatives are aghast at the thought that “sacred” institutions pay for the government programs they consume or for which they lobby. The same conservatives will argue, however, that illegal immigrants shouldn’t have access to government “benefits” because they didn’t pay for them. Yet they want churches to consume government benefits without having to pay for them.

I am happy to allow churches, and non-profit agencies, to retain their tax exempt status, but the playing field ought to be level. If they don’t pay taxes then they ought not be able to use their tax exempt status to promote specific pieces of legislation.

The Mormon Church has used their tax-exempt status to lobby their members on Proposition 8. They are doing so in a very dishonest way. The Mormon leaders aren’t donating church funds directly to this bigoted campaign. They use church funds to lobby their members to donate directly to the campaign. Then Mormons dishonestly turn around and bitch that the Prop 8 campaign isn’t “Mormon funded” since the church itself has given only $2000 to the campaign. This is just another example of the sort of half-truths that the Prop 8 campaign peddles.

When churches lobby for legislation, or lobby their members to seek special status for their beliefs, then they ought to lose their tax-exemption. The Mormon church is pushing to monopolize marriage according to their religion doctrines. They, and the Catholic hierarchy, are involved in lobbying for a particular political position. And they, unlike the rest of us, are doing so with the enjoyment of a tax-exempt status.

I support tax-exemption for true charities. But, if charities or churches become political lobbies, they ought to operate on a level playing field and pay for the legislation and programs which they are forcing down the throats of the rest of us. If they are content to engage in charitable work, and eschew political lobbying, then I’m happy for them to retain their tax-exempt status. Otherwise they ought to pay for the laws they lobby for. If anything there is a strong case to be paid that any group that lobbies for government programs or policies should pay the costs for those programs entirely on their own and be forbidden to pass them on to the taxpaying public. Tax exemption for what now amount to political organizations, religions, is distorting the political process.

While the political system already is insufferable due to the perverse incentives of politics, allowing one group the right to lobby for legislation, without having to pay the costs associated with that legislation, is only inviting disaster. It encourages religions to run amuk in the political system without ever having to be held responsible for the costs they inflict on others.

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