- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

President Bush is causing gastric distress among liberals over his aggressive support for tax relief and faith-based organizations. But conservatives should keep the Pepto Bismol within reach, too. While Bush preaches the gospel of religious liberty and limited government, his administration has already undermined those principles in a most stomach-churning way.

The feds this week seized an Indiana church whose leaders objected to serving as tax collectors for Big Brother. Supporters of the Indianapolis Baptist Temple watched helplessly as 85 armed federal marshals and 70 city police officers swarmed the church property. IBT's pastor emeritus, Rev. Greg Dixon, was hauled away on a gurney as he prayed. Several buildings on the 1,000-member church's complex, which housed a school, day care, and living quarters, will be auctioned off and proceeds funneled to the Internal Revenue Service.

The agency had hounded the congregation for nearly two decades because church leaders — citing their First Amendment rights — refused to withhold federal income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes from their lay ministry's paychecks. These employees provided services such as teaching at the church school or pitching in to clean gym and day care facilities. IBT also dissolved its incorporation, declined to organize as a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) charity, and did not affiliate with any formal religious entity.

“We take nothing from government and as a result the church owes government nothing but our prayers,” Rev. Dixon said. “Our entire argument is very simple … Congress is forbidden by the fundamental law of our land to require anything of a church.” In 1999, a federal judge disagreed, rendered a $6 million judgment to the IRS, and gave the government a green light to shut down the 50-year-old church. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the church's appeal.

This is an unprecedented seizure in modern American history, perhaps one of the most drastic acts ever taken by government to punish a religious community for refusing to submit to tax tyranny. So where's the outrage? Civil liberties advocates are nowhere to be found. No surprise there, since those groups act as though the freedom-of-religion clause of the First Amendment were written in invisible ink. But Republicans are also missing in action. No prominent GOP official assailed the confiscation. The Bush Justice Department declined to intervene because the case was avoidable only “if they paid their taxes,” spokeswoman Mindy Tucker told The Washington Times.

That response is severely misinformed. This case is not about tax cheats taking sanctuary in church pews. Rev. Dixon has repeatedly stated that his church was “not challenging the legality, constitutionality or morality of” U.S. tax laws (though maybe he should). He advised individual parishioners who contributed labor to the church to follow those laws. Indeed, Rev. Dixon reports, 60 lay ministers who paid their own tax liability personally were audited by the IRS in 1996. All passed. The IRS even returned a large chunk of the Social Security and Medicare taxes the church followers had sent.

Critics of the church's stance invoke the Biblical directive to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's” — but nowhere in Scripture (or in the federal tax code) does it order churches to do the rendering for their parishioners. The issue is not whether church workers should be required to pay taxes, but whether the church should be forced to withhold and report for them. The $6 million judgment against the church is essentially a punitive fine for refusing to act as a tax-collecting middleman for the federal bureaucracy. Meanwhile, thousands of businesses that openly defy withholding rules have gone unpunished by the IRS.

At the heart of this case is whether a group of believers can enjoy their constitutionally protected religious freedom without constant intrusion from the IRS's prying eyes and grubby hands. The courts may not have sided with the Indianapolis Baptist Temple, but its members answer first and foremost to a higher authority — the same one the president invoked repeatedly throughout his campaign.

President Bush should now practice some of his compassionate conservatism by giving this church back and leaving its members alone to serve their Lord and community.

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