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Editorial: Separation of church and state must be preserved

Editorial: Separation of church and state must be preserved

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A sign is applied onto a lectern before a news conference following the House passing the Republican-led tax reform bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Republican tax proposals would allow churches to remain tax exempt while engaging in partisan politics. (Al Drago/New York Times)

Whatever good ideas may be included in the proposed tax overhaul bills sloshing around in Congress, they include enough terrible ones to require members to start over again. The most recent is the effort to break the crucial wall between church and state.

This is a wall the country actually needs. It protects both parties. But in trying to appease certain constituents of the religious right, supporters of this measure are aiming to accomplish what the Constitution seeks to prevent: an unholy alliance between church and state.

The proposed change would eliminate the 1954 ban on political activity that binds churches and other nonprofit organizations in exchange for their tax-free status. If that happens, churches will see their moral authority erode, taxpayers will be forced to support organizations seeking to bend government policy to their benefit, and the country will be inched toward the kind of theocracy that some in the religious right seem to crave. And for what public purpose?

This push comes an at inconvenient time for some churches, but at a useful moment for taxpayers who understand why the separation of church and state is so valuable to both entities. A number of religious leaders in Alabama are practically falling over themselves in their rush to endorse the Senate candidacy of Roy Moore, who has been credibly accused of child sexual abuse.

Their headlong embrace of a man whose alleged conduct is intolerable and, in fact, un-Christian not only contradicts their precepts, but demonstrates why taxpayers should not be required to underwrite what can be fairly described as indecency. That, already, creates a loss of moral authority.

Of course, not all churches and religious leaders are so confused as to the role they should play in encouraging a moral society. Nevertheless, those seeking to breach the wall between church and state fail to understand that the separation protects them.

If the church is allowed to formally seek to influence matters of the state, the state will eventually seek greater influence over them. It’s axiomatic. Indeed, that pressure is bound to increase once taxpayers are called upon to support religious organizations, via their tax-exempt status, even as those organizations seek to influence public policy through overt political activity. Not all Americans hold the same religious ideas. Not even all Christians do.

If wielding this influence is truly important to churches and their members, they have another option: They can demonstrate their commitment by forgoing their tax-exempt status. That will come at a financial cost, of course, but it’s also a more moral approach to accomplishing whatever goals they seek to achieve through politics.

Even that’s a bad idea, though. Churches do better when they exert their influence through the teachings of their faith and shun secular affairs. Similarly, the state does better for itself and its constituents when it stays out of matters of faith.

This strategy on the part of Republicans and the religious right offers more evidence that tax reform has become a runaway train. Instead of mounting a valuable effort to simplify the tax code and to make it more fair to its many constituencies, the House and Senate have embarked on a political rampage, checking off boxes on their wish list with no regard for their impact on the poor and the middle class.

More than anything, and as implied by the comments of Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, this careless exercise is a desperate effort to please wealthy constituencies that simply want to lower their taxes.

Well, who doesn’t want lower taxes? But there is still a government to run, a military to fund, Social Security obligations to meet. Somebody has to pay.

Tax reform is a worthy goal, but not at the expense of the poor and middle class and not at the price of weakening the wall between church and state. Congress should start over and, in a bipartisan fashion, seek to do what is best for the country, not just what some extreme partisans want for themselves.

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