Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman turned presidential candidate, is quickly becoming an albatross around the neck of Democrats the nation over by loudly and proudly taking the positions progressives had always insisted were straw men from the fevered imaginations of the right.
In an exchange at the CNN LGBTQ Town Hall on October 10, the anchor Don Lemon asked Beto O’Rourke whether churches, charities and schools that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exemptions. Beto replied:
Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone, any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights, that denies the full civil rights, of everyone in America. So as president, we’re going to make that a priority. And we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.
Several progressive commentators came out against Beto’s tax-the-churches position. Jordan Weissmann at Slate said, “he’s essentially adopting unpopular stances that Democratic politicians have spent years claiming are unfair caricatures of their actual beliefs.”
“I wish I could agree with O’Rourke. I can’t,” wrote Sarah Jones, also at Slate.
This isn’t the first time O’Rourke has done something like this. Democrats spend almost every presidential election reassuring voters that they aren’t going to take away the guns of lawful gun owners, only to have O’Rourke say in a September debate, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.” In this way, the Texas skateboarder, who is flagging in the polls and is quickly being relegated to the back-tier of presidential contenders, may end up becoming a liability for the whole party.
In theory, if enacted, institutions from religious schools, to Catholic hospitals, to black Baptist churches, to Minnesota mosques, to conservative synagogues, would find it much harder to keep their doors open. Churches, and religious institutions generally, already exist on shoestring budgets. Adding property taxes, income taxes, and removing donors’ ability to claim their donations against their own taxes, would without a doubt be a death blow to many thousands of them.
As John Inazu wrote at The Atlantic, “O’Rourke’s stance – if played out to its end – would decimate the charitable sector. … anyone who thinks this is simply a pass-through that can be redirected to government providers or newly established charitable networks that better conform to Democratic orthodoxies is naive to the realities of the charitable sector.”
This isn’t the first time the issue has come up, though it has never had this kind of national attention. In arguments in the Obergefell same-sex marriage case, Donald Verrilli, Obama’s solicitor general, answered a question from Justice Alito about whether churches could lose tax exemptions. Verrilli said: “It’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.”
Now it is, however much Democratic presidential candidates might prefer to ignore it.
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