South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that he disagreed with former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s statement during Thursday’s LGBTQ Town Hall that churches, religious colleges, and religious charities should lose their tax exempt status if they oppose same sex marriages.

“I agree that anti-discrimination law should be applied to all institutions, but the idea that you are going to strip churches of their tax exempt status if they haven’t found their way to blessing same-sex marriage I’m not sure he understood the implications of what he was saying,” Buttigieg said to Tapper. “That means going to war not only with churches, but I would think with mosques and a lot of organizations that may not have the same view of various religious principles that I do, but also, because of the separation of church and state, are recognized as non-profits in this country.”

“So if we want to talk about anti-discrimination law for a school or an organization, absolutely, they should not be able to discriminate, but going after the tax exemptions of churches, Islamic centers, or other religious facilities in this country I think that is just going to deepen the divisions we are already experiencing at a moment when we are actually seeing more and more people motivated by compassion and by people they love moving in the right direction on LGBTQ rights which is extremely important to me personally,” he added.

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This is supposedly the “moderate” stance on a conflict between the dueling liberty interests of religious Americans and LGBTQ Americans.

Even, O’Rourke walked his comment from Thursday back – somewhat on MSNBC on Sunday night. Now he says he doesn’t believe that churches should lose their tax exempt status solely for believing same-sex marriage is wrong, but only if they apply that belief into practice in day to day operations.

O’Rourke clarified this comments on Thursday during the CNN LBGBTQ forum with Geoff Bennett on MSNBC’s Kasie DC show on Sunday night as Bennett pressed him saying, the government “can’t just dole out punishments on theological grounds.”

“To be clear, you are free to believe anything that you want to in this country, to associate with whom you please, to practice your faith as you best see fit, but you are not allowed to discriminate against people in this country. What I’m talking about is making sure that we follow the letter and the spirit of the law, and that as president I will sign into law the Equality Act to make sure that we do not deny the civil rights and human rights of any of our fellow Americans based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke mentioned Bob Jones University as a precedent. BJU lost their tax-exempt status over their discrimination of black students. The Supreme Court in Bob Jones University v. United States upheld the government’s action in 1983. They said that the First Amendment did not prohibit the IRS from revoking the tax exempt status of a religious university in this instance because of the compelling government interest in protecting the equal rights of black students.

“That’s the analogy that I see today. If any institution, if any non-profit, is going to deny services or equal treatment under the law to gay Americans or members of the LGBTQ community then they are going to be breaking a law and we are going to hold them accountable and if they persist we will withdraw their tax-exempt status,” he explained.

Bennett noted that O’Rourke’s idea could impact conservative black churches, Islamic centers, orthodox Jewish synagouges, and even religious, historically black colleges and universities.

“To be specific, the way that you practice your religion or your faith within that mosque or that temple, synagogue, or church that is your business and not the government’s business. But when you are providing services within the public sphere say higher education or health care or adoption services and you discriminate or deny equal treatment under the law based on someone’s skin color or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation then we have a problem. And in my understanding and reading of the civil rights act that’s against the law today, certainly it will be for members of the LGBTQ once we sign into law the Equality Act, and again with the precedent with Bob Jones University if one of these non-profit institutions were to persist in that kind of treatment of our fellow Americans we would look at revoking their tax exempt status,” O’Rourke answered.

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Some thoughts:

The candidates’ attempt to “moderate” their view of applying non-discrimination laws toward religious non-profits does little to diminish the concern that many Americans have toward policy goals like this.

Buttigieg is right to point out that revoking the tax-exempt status of a church is too far, but still open to punishing religious non-profits if they practice that faith as it applies to LGBTQ Americans.

It’s not that much different than what O’Rourke promoted on Sunday.

There are many negative implications.

For instance religious schools or organizations that believe homosexuality is a sin will be compelled to hire people who have lifestyles that contradict that belief or not be able to enforce standards of conduct policies if such behavior is discovered.

How can one not see that, for instance, an evangelical seminary being forced to hire a homosexual professor hurts the mission of the seminary?

Forcing faith-based adoption agencies to place with same-sex couples also forces those groups to violate their religious principles.

Does O’Rourke believe that the government should force faith-based hospitals to provide gender reassignment surgeries? I’m frankly not aware of any such hospitals denying LGBTQ Americans of standard health care.

Also, what constitutes a public service? That term seems to get broader and broader with non-discrimination laws, and I don’t see how churches wouldn’t apply.

Even Buttigieg said that non-discrimination laws “should be applied to all institutions.”

A quick word on using Bob Jones University as an analogy. Race and sexual orientation are not the same thing. Bob Jones University implemented a horrendous policy that had no basis in scripture, something they acknowledged when they apologized for their racist past. The government’s action in this particular case did not violate the school’s religious principles because that policy wasn’t rooted in those principles.

A pledge to not punish religious institutions based on their beliefs, but only how they practice those beliefs in a public arena is hardly a concession.

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