The tax-exempt status of churches and faith-based institutions will be safeguarded if they are elected president, two candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination told a sold-out crowd at a Southern Baptist conference in Nashville.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio answered questions Aug. 4 before more than 13,600 people gathered for the Send North America Conference, which was sponsored by the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. At the conference organizers’ invitation, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), interviewed Bush in person at the Bridgestone Arena and Rubio in a prerecorded video.
With both candidates, Moore focused his questions first on religious liberty, including tax exemption. Concerns about threats to religious freedom have grown in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June legalization of same-sex marriage. Ominous comments from Solicitor General Donald Verrilli during the March oral arguments in the marriage case raised apprehensions about the tax-exempt status of religious institutions. When asked by a justice if a school would lose its tax exemption for opposing gay marriage, Verrilli said, “[I]t is going to be an issue.”
Bush told Moore a president could remove dangers to tax exemption for faith-based organizations by placing people in the Department of Justice, including in the solicitor general’s post, who “don’t threaten to take away the tax-exempt status of organizations because they don’t fit the orthodoxy of the time.”
Rubio said his administration would have officials at the Internal Revenue Service and Justice Department – as well as newly named justices at the Supreme Court – who would protect the right of faith-based institutions to maintain their tax-exempt status.
Tax exemption for churches and religious institutions “recognizes the fact that these are not money-making ventures that should be paying taxes on the tithes and contributions,” Rubio told Moore. “These are organizations that are using the money they raise to carry out a social good. I know of no movement in America that does more for the common good – caring for the poor, the elderly, the sick, ministering to those in jail – than our faith community does, and they deserve to be treated that way by the tax code.”
Photo from NAMB
Both Bush and Rubio, who represents Florida in the Senate, said religious liberty should not be viewed as only the freedom to believe and worship.
“[P]eople will say, ‘It’s okay to be religious. Just do it in your church and do it at home, but don’t act on your faith in the public square, because that’s discriminatory against those who may not agree with it,’” Bush said.
“It’s the other way around. This is the first freedom. This is a foundational freedom in our country.
“A president should have not just the right but has the duty to explain why this is a threat to not just religious freedom but to other freedoms,” Bush told the Send Conference audience. “You take this one away, it’s very easy to imagine other freedoms being taken away as well.”
Religious freedom, Rubio said, “is not simply the right to believe anything you want. It’s the right to live according to those teachings and to have the opportunity to spread it to others, instill it in your children and live it in your everyday life. Those of us of the Christian faith understand that we are called to be Christians in every aspect of our lives, not just on Sunday.”
“We need a president that will protect that right,” he said.
The appearances of the two candidates out of 17 Republicans seeking their party’s nomination matched the mentor, Bush, with his protégé, Rubio, from their days in Florida politics. Both are pro-life Roman Catholics who have appealed to and received support from evangelical Christians.
Leading candidates from each major party were invited to the forum at the Send Conference, according to the ERLC. Beginning May 1, invitations were sent to those candidates in the GOP field who were polling 10 percent or higher in the Real Clear Politics national average up to one month before the event, the ERLC reported.
As a result of that qualifying standard, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker joined Rubio and Bush in receiving invitations on the Republican side, while Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton also was invited. Clinton, Paul and Walker either declined or were unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict, according to the ERLC. Moore said he looks forward to having conversations with candidates in both parties leading to the 2016 election.
In the Aug. 4 question-and-answer sessions at the Send Conference, other issues raised with Bush and Rubio included abortion, the use of military force overseas to defend Christians and other religious adherents against Islamic extremists, the torture of detained enemy combatants, racial discrimination and overcoming public incivility.
When asked about federal funding of Planned Parenthood, Bush promised to defund the organization if elected to the White House. His comment came after the release of five undercover videos over the previous three weeks that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of organs from aborted children for research. The organization received $528 million in government grants, contracts and reimbursements in its most recent financial year.
Bush went on to say, “You could take dollar for dollar, although I’m not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health issues – there are many extraordinarily fine organizations, community health organizations, that exist – federally sponsored community health organizations – to provide quality care for women on a wide variety of health issues. But abortion should not be funded by the government, any government in my mind.”
His comment about funds for women’s health services drew strong rebukes from Clinton and others because of its apparent application beyond Planned Parenthood.
Later, Bush said in a statement released through his campaign website he misspoke. “[T]here are countless community health centers, rural clinics, and other women’s health organizations that need to be fully funded,” he said. “They provide critical services to all, but particularly low-income women who don’t have the access they need.
“I was referring to the hard-to-fathom $500 million in federal funding that goes to Planned Parenthood – an organization that was callously participating in the unthinkable practice of selling fetal organs. Democrats and Republicans agree we absolutely must defund them and redirect those funds to other women’s health organizations.”
Later Aug. 4, Moore told Anderson Cooper of CNN, “[I]n context, it certainly seemed as though [Bush] was talking about Planned Parenthood,” rather than all women’s health services.
“[I]n context, I think most people in the auditorium understood what Governor Bush meant, which is that we shouldn’t be funding Planned Parenthood” and “instead we ought to be funding other worthy organizations,” Moore told Cooper.
What the Planned Parenthood videos “reveal more than anything else,” Rubio said, “is that abortion in America has become a money-making industry and that there are people with financial interests in hand behind the abortion industry which every year leads to the murder of millions of children who will never have a chance to fulfill their God-given rights.”
Racism still exists, both candidates agreed.
“It’s quieter, but an insidious form of it [exists] for sure,” Bush said. “We need to confront it head on.”
Rubio, a Hispanic, said, “[Y]ou can’t have hundreds of years of systemic discrimination and then suddenly believe that in 50 or 60 years all of its remnants have been wiped out or that its impact isn’t still being felt.”
Systemic discrimination, he said, now manifests itself in two ways: In a lack of economic opportunity and in the interaction between some local police departments and minority communities.
“We can’t just say, ‘Well, 90 percent of police officers are not racist.’ I believe that,” Rubio said. “But if there are five percent or eight percent of people in this country who feel afflicted by local law enforcement, it’s something we have to honestly address as a society. Otherwise, you’re going to have an entire segment of our population who permanently feels locked out of the promise of America, and that can’t be good for our country.”
Video of the two interviews is available online at erlc.com/videos/.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)