Religious Americans are substantially excluded from the political process that produces laws, and this prompts sobering questions about the reality of religious equality. Put simply, political exclusion threatens religious equality.
The exclusion is two-fold. It arises partly from the growth of administrative power, which leaves Americans, including religious Americans, no opportunity to vote for or against their administrative lawmakers. It also arises from section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. As a result of this section, even when law is made in Congress (or an elected state legislature), religious organizations are restricted in their freedom to petition and to campaign for or against their lawmakers. There thus is a broad exclusion of religious Americans and their organizations from the political process that shapes lawmaking, and Americans thereby have lost essential mechanisms for persuading their lawmakers to avoid burdening their religious beliefs.
Religious liberty thus comes with an unexpected slant. Courts blithely assume that America offers a flat or even legal landscape — a broad and equitable surface on which all Americans can participate equally, regardless of their religion. The underlying exclusion, however, tilts the entire game, so that apparently equal laws actually slant against religion. What is assumed to be a flat and natural landscape turns out to be an artificially tilted game.
The conceptual framing of religious liberty therefore needs to expanded. The central conceptual problem for the free exercise of religion is usually understood as the choice between exemption and equality — the choice between a freedom from equal laws, on account of one’s religion, and a freedom under equal laws, regardless of one’s religion. The conceptual problem, however, turns out to be more complicated. In addition to the constitutional choice between exemption and equality, one must also consider the role of exclusion.
Of course the political exclusion of Americans as a result of the growth of the administrative state would not affect only religious Americans, and Philip recognizes this in the paper. But his particular focus is on the political exclusions that the administrative process has worked on those with religious convictions–and particularly on those whose religious convictions run contrary to or are in tension with the commitments of those in political power. “Those who are sailing with prevailing winds, theological and political, do not suffer much from the exclusion.”
The argument about section 501(c)(3) is particularly interesting. As is well-known, this provision offers a kind of deal to religious, educational, and charitable organizations: so long as you do not campaign and advocate for political persons and causes, the state will not tax you. The common justification for the imposition of these constraints is that they are merely conditions on spending, but Philip argues here (as he has before) that limits on government power cannot be waived by consent–“private consent cannot enlarge constitutional power.” Constitutional rights are not “tradable commodities.” So the government cannot cut the deal it has cut in section 501(c)(3); it has no power to do so. Philip also questions the idea that exemptions are the same as expenditures for purposes of the spending power. “If refraining from taxing amounted to spending, then all Americans continually would be recipients of government largesse, for the government might have taxed them at a higher rate, and the decision not to impose the higher rate would be a tax expenditure.” If that were true, the government could apply 501(c)(3) against all Americans.
The idea here is that the reason not to tax churches and religious organizations is not that they made a deal with the government in exchange for which they are get the privilege of an exemption. The reason not to tax them is that taxes are not proper as against organizations whose principal mission is nonprofit. Exemptions here are merely mechanisms for recognizing that a tax is inappropriate for organizations that ordinarily have no income. Philip then takes aim at the various justifications for the partial political exclusion worked by 501(c)(3)–that the restriction is “not draconian,” that allows other avenues for religious groups to participate in the political process (the Russian Doll analogy to what is permitted by 501(c)(4) was particularly effective), the ‘we need a mechanism to stop tax deductible political contributions’ claim–arguing that none of them is sufficient to counter the constitutional problems.
Here’s a thought experiment in the piece: suppose the government attempted to apply 501(c)(3 restrictions to professors. Professors are supposed to be disinterested observers, so the government decides to make a distinction between academics and politics. Therefore, as professors (as opposed to as private individuals), they cannot engage in any campaigning or substantial petitioning. After all, professors benefit from a whole lot of federal spending on their students and their univerisities, so it’s perfectly ok to condition federal aid to universities on the absence of political participation of various kinds by professors. And, anyway, if they were true academics, they wouldn’t engage in politicking anyway. I suspect many would think this quite absurd. And as Philip says, “[t]he larger constitutional point is that the reasons for suppression are plentiful, but this does not mean that they make the suppression constitutional.”