Troubling Q&A on tax exemption for churches during presidential candidate town hall

by | Oct 14, 2019

During a CNN town hall event last week focused on the LGBTQ community, Democratic presidential candidates were asked to comment on the relationship between religious freedom and nondiscrimination. That’s not surprising. The tension between the two has been the subject of controversy in public discourse and policy debates, and in some court cases.

An exchange between CNN’s Don Lemon and former congressman Beto O’Rourke demonstrates the way the media and politicians oversimply conflicts, making thoughtful discourse more difficult.  Here is CNN’s transcript of that exchange:

LEMON: Congressman, I want to ask you a question. This is from your LGBTQ plan, and here’s what you write. This is a quote. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right but it should not be used to discriminate. Do you think religious institutions, like colleges, churches, charities, should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?






O’ROURKE: There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.

That exchange, connecting support for LGBTQ rights and possible threats to tax-exempt status, is reminiscent of a question posed during oral argument in U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage case. BJC addressed it in news coverage and a resource for churches.

In response to this recent story, BJC executive director Amanda Tyler stated:

Unsurprisingly, partisan candidate forums are not helpful places to find consensus on some of the most highly-charged and complicated questions of our time. Congressman O’Rourke’s sweeping and ill-advised response caused alarm and has been rightfully criticized. I would hope that he would rethink, retract and clarify his position. Protecting religious freedom and LGBTQ rights deserves thoughtful dialogue, not sound bites pandering to audience applause.

The First Amendment — without question — protects rights of individuals and religious institutions to support or oppose conceptions of marriage according to the dictates of their faith, and to peacefully express those views. That is not a controversial position.

Houses of worship are absolutely free to determine which marriages they bless or approve and which ceremonies they conduct.  Such theological diversity is well-respected and protected in our religious freedom tradition.