x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

An unspoken truth in US politics: religious groups are silenced

The US, supposedly a bastion of free speech, uses tax law to silence all varieties of religious leaders from preaching about politics.

When Muslim clerics ascend pulpits in Doha, Beirut or Tehran and call for a change in a US presidential administration, they are doing something that is barred in the United States.

The presidential candidates have expounded at length (if perhaps superficially) on foreign and domestic issues, most recently in the last televised debate yesterday UAE time.

But there is one area that is off limits in the US give-and-take. Tax law forbids some political speech that is common in much of the world. In the Muslim world, protests tend to occur on Fridays after mostly men get stirred up about political issues at their mosques.

Places of worship are among the most influential political venues in the Middle East. Minaret loudspeakers amplify imams' politics for those not in attendance. Religious groups in Turkey and Israel are extremely vocal about electoral choices.

The US government, however, has a bizarre fear of this type of speech. Non-profit religious leaders in the US are free to support or oppose specific policies, legislation or wars, but may not advocate the election or deposition of specific candidates.

The Internal Revenue Code warns that public statements made "in favour of or in opposition to any candidate for public office" may result in a church, mosque or synagogue being stripped of its tax-exempt designation. Given that Lyndon Johnson pioneered this restraint in the 1950s for the sole purpose of silencing supporters of his senatorial opponent, how this law passes constitutional muster escapes me.

The ban, which allegedly exists to enforce a distinction between church and state, actually represents the US government violating that separation.

The law reaches beyond houses of worship, however. All charitable organisations are prohibited from endorsing political candidates, which even restricts the political speech of non-profit news organisations such as the Voice of San Diego and The Texas Tribune.

The ban "absolutely" forbids non-profits "from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate".

It's time for the United States to put this restraint to rest. The IRS code muting pulpit politics is a stain on the Supreme Court's eloquent 1964 promise to keep American debate "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open".

The country that abides the 2011 decision in Citizens United v The Federal Election Commission, which lets corporations spend large amounts of money to expressly advocate on behalf of a candidate, right up to election day itself, doesn't have any business telling preachers, imams and rabbis to keep quiet.

In post-Citizens United America, it makes sense to grant all corporations - businesses, non-profits, religious organisations and others - the same freedom of political speech.

For their part, US presidential candidates don't seem to care much for the IRS prohibitions. This month hundreds of religious leaders across the United States defied the IRS restraint by endorsing from their pulpits a candidate in the presidential election.

It's unlikely the IRS has the audacity to make these religious organisations pay taxes. The same organisation that doesn't tax Scientology as a business doesn't seem to be serious about increasing the distinction between religion and less noble pursuits.

The simplest commitment to the First Amendment in the US constitution involves protecting explicit political speech. The ban on some non-profits' imprimaturs in political campaigns was breathed by an overbearing politician in the 1950s wishing to mute opponents, precisely the kind of power the First Amendment must meet with force.

Justin D Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar

On Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin