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A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 2 - Religious Privilege

Ben Carson I've begun a series to take a closer look at Ben Carson, and the main method I've chosen is to read articles that he himself has written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

The first entry in this series was mostly an introduction and some comments on Carson's troubling views on evolution (based on an interview). Today, I'm going tackle the first of the articles, which is an example of religious privilege (similar to the privilege Carson wanted in the (Navy Bible Kerfuffle).

The article is one Carson wrote for the Washington Times, Houston's First Amendment abuse. If you'd believe what Carson wrote, this would be a case of stifling free speech and religious freedom.

The recent, questionably unconstitutional moves by the City Council of Houston to subpoena the sermons of five area ministers as well as internal correspondences dealing with social issues, should have the American Civil Liberties Union and everyone else who believes in free speech and religious freedom up in arms.

But in reality, this to me is an example of the privilege religion gets in the U.S., not having to play by the same rules as every other organization. Snopes, as usual, has a pretty good summary of the specifics of this case, Houston Hustle. Various right wing groups were trying to organize a petition to challenge the recent HERO law passed in Houston. They needed 17,259 signatures to get their initiative placed on the ballot. While they had 50,000 signatures, the city rejected most of them as invalid for various reasons, and the initiative fell short of the threshold. Once they learned of this decision, the opponents of HERO filed a lawsuit against the city. As part of gathering evidence for the lawsuit, the city has subpoenaed sermons and other materials from various ministers. The reason for this, in the words of city attorney, David Feldman, is, "All officials want to know is what kinds of instructions the pastors gave out with respect to collecting petition signatures, and whether what they said agrees with what they're arguing in court while appealing the referendum." Unfortunately, public outcry against the subpoenas was so great that the city dropped them.

Perhaps the subpoenas are overly broad, but they do have a legitimate legal purpose, in trying to determine if the claims in the lawsuit are factual or not. Churches should not be above the law, and should not be able to hide behind the First Amendment to break the law. The city should have a means of investigation to determine if what the churches are claiming in their lawsuit is a lie.

But that's not the way Carson sees it. Take a look at how he sees the issue.

We as Americans must guard every aspect of our Constitution and recognize when it is being threatened. One of the great dangers in America today is extreme intolerance in the name of tolerance. For example, in this Houston case, it is presupposed that the pastors in question may have said something that was objectionable to the homosexual community.

The subpoenas were not because the pastors may have insulted homosexuals, but as I already pointed out, an attempt to determine if the churches are being honest in their lawsuit.

Although city attorneys said that they weren't interested in whether or not the churches were violating their tax-exempt status (it's not within their jurisdiction), I think that this issue should have received much more legal attention. This issue of free speech on the pulpit has certainly received a lot of attention in the articles on this issue, including Carson's.

Churches almost always file as (or simply default to) 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. Part of the law regarding 501(c)(3) nonprofits is that they're not allowed to engage in overt political activities (About.com - Can Nonprofits Engage in Political Activity?). This applies to any organization that wants to have 501(c)(3) status, from churches to Doctors Without Borders to the Girl Scouts. When ministers want to preach politics from the pulpit, they're violating this law, and risk losing their 501(c)(3) status. It's not that the ministers don't have free speech - but churches don't get to file as that particular type of non-profit if their ministers are going to engage in political speech on church time. Of course, the ministers are free to say whatever they want when not on church time, and like I said, it's the same rules for every other 501(c)(3) charity.

And this isn't the first instance of churches escaping consequences for breaking this law. There's a movement, Pulpit Freedom Sunday, where pastors across the country openly flout this law (N.Y. Times - The Political Pulpit), but because of the special treatment churches get, the IRS has yet to go after these criminals. Just imagine if a modern day Al Capone were to found a church as a front for their organization. They really would be untouchable.

The solution for churches who want to engage in political activity is simple - don't file as a 501(c)(3). But unfortunately, many of these churches want special treatment instead of following the same rules as everybody else (and for the most part, they're getting that special treatment).

To give Carson some credit, the middle portion of his article wasn't too bad. He made some good points about tolerance, open conversation, and free speach. However, in the context of the Houston issue that prompted the article, those points seem out of place. They would have seemed more fitting in an example where people's free speach actually was being suppressed.

The issue in Houston was a city government trying to investigate claims that various churches made in a lawsuit. The city wouldn't have any jurisdiction over the churches' tax exempt statuses, at any rate. But this case clearly shows churches getting special treatment in two ways - first by blocking any investigation into claims they've made relevant to the lawsuit, and second by so egregiously violating tax law without even being investigated at all. Carson can try to claim this is an issue of free speech and religious freedom, but it really seems to be a case of religious privilege.

Summary on RealBenCarson.com: Houston's First Amendment Abuse

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst


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