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Exemption attack

Beto O’Rourke’s troubling comments

Exemption attack

Beto O’Rourke (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Beto O’Rourke at least had the political sense to backtrack. His earlier response to a reporter’s question about homosexual rights had been preposterous—earning dissent even from his ultra-liberal, fellow presidential candidates. But O’Rourke’s follow-up “clarification” served mostly to show what the former U.S. congressman from Texas really thinks on the subject. And what he thinks suggests he should have no place of influence in government.

The question, from CNN reporter Don Lemon at an Oct. 10 forum on gay rights, was straightforward: “Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities, should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?” 

O’Rourke’s response was immediate and explicit: “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 are going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.” Yes, he said—to applause. That would include loss of tax-exempt status by any offending entity.

But that was a bit too much. Even fellow candidates Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg said O’Rourke had gone too far. Buttigieg, a practicing homosexual, said, “The idea that you’re going to strip churches of their tax-exempt status if they haven’t found their way toward blessing same-sex marriage—I’m not sure he understood the implications of what he was saying.”

O’Rourke’s understanding of ‘religious freedom’ seems to involve whatever activity is carried on inside a ‘religious building’—but little else.

O’Rourke had a chance to clarify matters. Interviewed a couple of days later on MSNBC, he said: “The way that you practice your religion or your faith within that mosque or that temple or synagogue or church, that is your business, and not the government’s business.”

But he didn’t stop there. He went on: “But when you are providing services in the public sphere, say, higher education, or healthcare, or adoption services, and you discriminate or deny equal treatment under the law based on someone’s skin color or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation, then we have a problem.”

O’Rourke’s understanding of “religious freedom” seems to involve whatever activity is carried on inside a “religious building”—but little else. And even there, the application of freedom is subject to whatever definition of “religious” seems handy. Any American who takes his religious faith seriously should be glad O’Rourke has ended his presidential campaign.

But O’Rourke still has substantial company, both in the electorate at large and in the American judiciary, in telling people that they can’t exercise “sexual orientation discrimination” in hiring, in the sale of products (like wedding cakes), or in providing services (like wedding photography). So it may seem, at first, that O’Rourke is showing a somewhat charitable spirit when he suggests that so long as we keep our discrimination within the walls of our churches, he’ll leave us alone.

But that’s not what O’Rourke said. “We have a problem,” he says, whenever these “religious people” drift over the line and start engaging in activities like “higher education, or healthcare, or adoption services.” He might well have included “publishers of Christian magazines”!

Loss of tax-exempt status isn’t the worst that could happen to faith-based entities. Most of the charitable giving I’m most familiar with is motivated not by a tax deduction but by a love for the mission of the organization. But large donors, especially, appreciate the added clout their gifts enjoy when they are exempt.

Loss of exemption carries other likely threats. Here are three:

• Academic institutions face the possibility of losing accreditation and thus diminished appeal among students, families, and donors.

• Loss of exemption from the IRS may lead to an obligation to pay local property taxes. Institutions with attractive campuses might well face hefty annual bills on this front alone.

• Similar surprises may include sales taxes on a broad variety of products and services that until now have been tax exempt.

Note well that these financially ruinous obligations are not immediately likely. But the fact that Beto O’Rourke can so glibly and dogmatically propose such radical changes, and that both he and some of his colleagues are ready to use IRS exemption as a political weapon—all is cause for appropriate and alert concern.