Written by Don Byrd

Baptist Joint Committee executive director Amanda Tyler has an important column in the newest issue of Report From the Capital. Treating churches differently, she argues, does not necessarily amount to improper discrimination. While “equal treatment” is a common demand, religious liberty often requires “special treatment.” At times, that calls for favorable treatment, like the exemption for houses of worship from certain tax filings or registration. At other times, however, limitations on churches are in keeping with religious liberty, especially when taxpayer funds are involved.

Tyler points to two stories currently in the news that underscore this principle: the IRS’ ban on tax-exempt electioneering, and the upcoming Supreme Court case involving the denial of a church’s grant application by the state of Missouri (see a preview of that case here).

Here is an excerpt from her column:

As the BJC’s brief in support of Missouri’s position explains, there are many good reasons to prohibit government funding of houses of worship. “No aid” principles preserve church autonomy, avoid religious conflict in the legislative and administrative process, and protect taxpayer conscience by not requiring citizens to support religion. Far from discrimination, treating churches differently shows respect for the distinct role of religion in general and houses of worship in particular.

Similar sentiments of equal treatment appear in arguments made by those who want to “destroy the Johnson Amendment,” which has become code for changing the tax laws that currently set apart charitable nonprofits and private foundations from the morass of partisan candidate campaigns. These 501(c)(3) organizations are not only tax-exempt, but they also benefit from tax-deductible donations. In exchange for that most-favored tax status, the groups agree to refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates.

Notice the underlying assumption of the proposal: that church is just another place to hear a political ad. Church is much more than that – a place of fellowship, a house of worship and a sanctuary of peace. These unique qualities are exactly what draw many people to church. Removing the protections in the law could very well lead politicians to pressure pastors to use their pulpits for campaign speech, alienating churchgoers in the short term and, in the long term, fundamentally changing the role of church in our society.

Read the whole thing.