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General Ramblings: Politicizing Politics

By Paul Clolery - August 30, 2013

How many people reading this column have family members with whom they barely speak and stay on the other side of the room from during holidays? When there is discussion, it is either curt or very, very loud. That awkward Thanksgiving is the tax-exempt sector.

It isn’t as much fun as the Cheers episode that erupts into a food fight at Carla’s home. The sector unfortunately is often best illustrated in an exchange between Carla and Diane:

Diane: What could be more enjoyable than opening your heart with holiday cheer?

Carla: Opening yours with a can opener.

Now a war of words has broken out between the secular nonprofit and religious organization leaders regarding a recommendation that clergy should be able to say anything they want from the pulpit of their tax-exempt houses of worship so long as it doesn’t cost anything.

It’s an actual she said, he said. The “she” is Diana Aviv, leader at Independent Sector (IS). The “he” is Dan Busby, head of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).

Independent Sector issued a statement slamming a report released by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations established by the ECFA. The 60-page report recommended changing regulations on political speech by religious organizations and other nonprofits. Among the recommendations made were that clergy should be able to say whatever they believe is appropriate in the context of their religious services or other regular religious activities even when that includes content related to political candidates. Such communication would be permissible as long as the organization’s cost would be the same with or without it.

Secular nonprofits weren’t left out. They should have “comparable latitude when engaging in regular, exempt-purpose activities and communications.” Current IRS policy not permitting tax-deductible funds to be disbursed for political purposes should be preserved, according to the report.

“This is a deeply disturbing and troubling option,” Aviv told The NonProfit Times. “We think it should not be a possibility,” Aviv concluded. She argued that, after an initial review, segments of the report are unclear while others are contradictory. She went as far as saying she turned down an opportunity to be on an advisory commission subpanel, believing members were required to sign a statement that they would not speak out after the report was released.

Busby countered that commission and panel members were free to share their view points, such as through position papers published on the commission’s website, adding that there was a confidentiality agreement with respect to the commission’s proceedings prior to the release of the report.

This is an example of why the charitable sector will never be on the same page and can’t be treated as a single entity. There often are so many elbows thrown you’d think Dennis Rodman had just rebounded the sector and tossed it down court to Scottie Pippen.

As Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Antonin Scalia has opined, free isn’t always free and money does buy speech. There are few leaders in the sector who agree with the high court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court ruled that the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions.

If it applies to corporations, associations and labor unions, why can’t it apply to Independent Sector and the ECFA, too? It’s a natural extension of the argument. Throw in the new B-Corporation status bestowed on for-profit companies that want to separate themselves from their profit-making brethren and the sector looks less and less like what it was just 10 years ago. Money does change everything.

There are members of Congress who want to strip the sector of tax-exempt status and some of this posturing plays straight into their uninformed reasoning.

Aviv and Busby are both correct to a point. Is the sector a service delivery mechanism or a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves? This is a question the sector has to answer. It can be both. Perhaps these two leaders can sit down and broker a peace that unifies the sector where it can be while acknowledging that there will be fundamental differences in opinion.  NPT

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