Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Criticism Is Not Anti-Religious Bigotry: Mormons, Gays, and Taxes

Yesterday, I wrote about how lawful protesting does not constitute intolerance, bigotry, or censorship. Today, I want to discuss the running theme in some "marriage defense" corners that it now constitutes "anti-religious bigotry" to protest a church's involvement in political and social affairs.

While many LGBT rights advocates have been critiquing anti-gay interpretations of Christianity for years, much ado has been made over the fact that many in the LGBT community are angry over the Mormon Church's involvement in the Yes on 8 movement. This particular Christian denomination was rather instrumental in the passage of Prop 8. Specifically, it coordinated a massive fund-raising effort and allegedly donated non-monetary contributions to the Yes on 8 movement. As Americablog reports:

"The Mormon Church made the Yes on Prop 8 campaign a national priority beginning on June 20, 2008 when Church President David S. Monson sent his now famous letter to be read in every church building, where he said, 'We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment (Prop 8) by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman.'"

Because of this involvement, LGBT rights activists began protesting outside of Mormon temples in several cities almost immediately after Prop 8 passed. Unfortunately, several events are overshadowing the fact that, like the nationwide protests against Prop 8, most of the protests against the Mormon church have been peaceful.

On November 13, 2008, for instance, the anti-gay blogosphere was in an uproar after reports that "letters containing a suspicious [albeit harmless] white powder were sent" to Mormon temples in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Yet, at this time, it's not known who sent these letters. It could be some sort of unacceptable sick prank by an LGBT rights advocate- which would be very unfortunate, because the vast majority of us do not believe in or condone such activities. At the same time, it wouldn't surprise me if the powder was sent by a "marriage defender" pulling an Ashley Todd-esque sympathy-inducing hoax. I don't think anyone should be jumping the gun right now without knowing all of the facts.

While I don't agree with threats, I do agree that protesting the Mormon Church is appropriate and does not constitute intolerance, censorship, or bigotry.

"Marriage defender" Jennifer Roback Morse, however, seems to take a different view. Recently, she has referred to the protests of the Mormon Church as "anti-religious bigotry." I'm sorry but calling critism "bigotry" is just a warped, immature understanding of what bigotry is. See, as a lesbian, I am not opposed to the Church of Latter Day Saints' (LDS) right to exist. Rather, I remain critical of the Mormon Church's position on marriage equality.

Just because an organizations is a church, it is not immune to criticism.
For one, as alleged guardians of our collective morals I believe we have a duty to speak out when we believe these entities foster hatred and intolerance rather than love and compassion. Secondly, individuals and institutions who put themselves out into the public arena, especially to the remarkable degree that the LDS did, make themselves fair game for criticism. Just because the LDS happens to be a church, it cannot now back up with its hands in the air and declare any criticism to be off-limits "religious bigotry." It doesn't work that way. If you're going to put your thoughts out into the public sphere, you better be ready to back them up instead of resorting to knee-jerk labeling any sort of criticism to be "anti-religious bigotry." And if you can't handle criticism, as they say, you should probably stay out of the kitchen.

In this country, many people strongly value religion. And that's fine. But at the same time, religion is a choice. Unfortunately, the rhetoric from the right has been that criticizing religious choice is "intolerance" even though these same folks fail to concede that they promote intolerance of other people's "lifestyle choices." I think these people have reversed the situation a bit. They are acting as their religious choice is an inherent trait that other people absolutely must tolerate. Yet, when it comes to tolerating and respecting sexual orientation, something that actually is inherent, they preach the opposite. They expect us to change something that is inherent to us, even though it would be far easier for them to change their religious choice.

The fact is, people choose to accept and believe in certain religious teachings. Considering the fact that so many people use their religious choices as a sword to cut down my own life, I recognize that I don't have to tip-toe around criticizing the religious beliefs of others. Again, if you're going to use your religion to bludgeon my life, you need to seriously reconsider whether your religion is a delicate little flower that must be safeguarded from criticism no matter what.

On a related note, some advocates are pushing for a revocation of the LDS's tax-exempt status. From a legal standpoint, I don't think it's a very good case. It's actually not all that interesting. Under the Internal Revenue Code, tax-exempt organizations may not endorse political candidates, but they may engage in a degree of political advocacy. Considering the fact that it was individual members of the LDS who contributed to Yes on 8, as opposed to the church itself, I just don't think there's a strong case here. Again, I don't think we know all of the facts, and there is evidence that the LDS church itself allegedly contributed some non-monetary donations to Yes on 8. But it's hard to say, as an outsider, whether these contributions were "substantial" or not. Besides, churches in particular are given very special treatment by the IRS when it comes to tax-exemption.

Unfortunately, what is for the most part nothing more than a misunderstanding of tax-exempt organization law and frustration over the fact that the LDS played such a prominent role in the passage of Prop 8, is being framed as yet another example of anti-religious "homo-fascism" and "religious bigotry." What is frustrating to our community is that, in many of our minds, we simply cannot compete with evangelical, Mormon, and other Rick Warren-esque religious million-dollar morality monopolies. In our eyes, what should be loving, compassionate, and kind Christian organizations are nothing more than large bullies using a maligned minority group as a punching bag.

While I don't think think there is much of a case for stripping the LDS of its tax-exempt status as the law stand now, as a society we should be asking serious questions about the degree we want religion to influence public policy. Should we automatically subsidize organizations that tell their congregants that if they don't vote a certain way on an issue they will go to "hell"? Is it really for the common good for pastors to use public resources to influence policy by striking fear into the hearts of basically good, God-fearing men and women?

These organizations hold great influence over the minds of their congregations, and are capable of spiritual blackmail. Fear of going to "hell" is perhaps one of the greatest fears that Christians have. It makes me extremely nervous to know that certain pastors can and do use their bully-pulpits for political gain rather than to help their congregations achieve spiritual transcendence.

Tax-exemption is a privilege, not a right. It is granted by legislators via we, the taxpayers. The denial of tax-exemption for a church does not infringe on anyone's right to practice a certain religion. As the US Supreme Court articulated in Regan v. Taxation With Representation "a legislature's decision not to subsidize the exercise of a fundamental right does not infringe that right."

In other words, churches can believe whatever they want- and as a proponent of free speech I would fight for their right to do so- but they have to realize that it doesn't infringe their rights when we stop subsidizing their beliefs, statements, and religion.

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