When Beto O’Rourke ran for U.S. Senate in Texas last year, he presented himself as someone who could reach across the political divide and work with those he disagrees with. Now as he runs for president this year, Candidate Beto is embracing the politics of sharp divisions. That’s how we read his response to a town hall event hosted by CNN on Thursday. Asked if religious institutions should lose their federal tax-exempt status if they oppose gay marriage, the former congressman from El Paso said “yes.”

There are two reasons religious congregations and charities are exempt from taxation. First, because they provide for the common good. Organizations in our city like Catholic Charities, Baylor Medical Center, Islamic Council of North America Relief, Dallas Life Foundation, Genesis Women’s Shelter, Jewish Family Service and hundreds of others provide vital charitable benefits to society. And while all of those organizations may not share the same beliefs on topics like God, humanity, sexuality or politics, they nonetheless make North Texas a better place to live.

The second reason is more germane: the Constitution’s establishment clause is meant to safeguard religious freedom by imposing limits on the government’s regulatory and taxing powers. The religious landscape in America is as close to a free and unregulated market as may be found anywhere in the world. Our government doesn’t regulate religion. It doesn’t keep a registry of congregations. It doesn’t support one kind of religious belief and restrict others. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had it right: The power to tax is the power to destroy.

Neither of those two reasons is threatened by a church’s doctrinal statement on marriage. The law of the land is clear on that point. This isn’t about relitigating Obergefell v. Hodges. This is about protecting religious institutions from forced consent. Allowing debate — something once called tolerance — is a critical component to a thriving democracy. It’s a safety valve as well as a bridge to understanding. Taxing religion will only undermine those functions.

Religious organizations have long had to refrain from stumping for particular candidates, but robust debate on hot-button issues is perfectly appropriate. And that may be the most destructive thing about O’Rourke’s position. It doesn’t seem to be informed by a robust consideration of all the factors. Rather than giving space for debate, it would force religious organizations to pay a price if they disagree on a hotly contested issue.

Truth be told, taxing religion is the go-to threat trotted out by politicians who don’t like a religious organization’s message. Opposed to Islam? Claim it’s not a religion. Think Scientology is crazy? Call it a business. Disagree with a church’s traditional sexual ethic, threaten to tax it.

Contrary to O’Rourke’s assertions, we’ll continue to operate under the guidance of an older firebrand leader who once said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”

Editorial by The Dallas Morning News

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