LAW & PUBLIC POLICY
“House Approves Storm Aid for Religious Institutions.” By Robert Pear. New York Times. February 18, 2013. The House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow the use of federal money to rebuild churches and synagogues damaged by Hurricane Sandy, despite concern that such aid could violate the doctrine of separation of church and state. The bill, approved last week by a vote of 354 to 72, had support from Roman Catholic and Jewish organizations. It was opposed by 66 Democrats and 6 Republicans. The prospects for the bill in the Senate are uncertain. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, said Monday that she supported the measure and was working to secure its passage in the Senate. She noted that religious institutions like St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Belle Harbor, Queens, had provided aid to many storm victims. Scores of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship were damaged — along with homes, schools, stores and roads — when the hurricane battered the Northeast in late October. Congress has provided $60 billion to finance recovery efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has generally refused to provide grants to rebuild houses of worship. In some cases, federal aid can be used to reimburse houses of worship for social services they provide, and houses of worship can sometimes qualify for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration. The House bill adds houses of worship to the list of private nonprofit organizations eligible for disaster relief. Federal law already allows such aid to museums, zoos, performing-arts centers, libraries, homeless shelters and other private nonprofit entities that provide “essential services of a governmental nature to the general public.”
“Supreme Court takes campaign finance case.” By Jennifer Rubin. Washington Post. February 19, 2013. The most important event today likely wasn’t the president hypocritically crying wolf about the sequester he insisted upon. It is not NBC News/MSNBC yet again throwing journalistic seriousness to the wind (this time by hiring David Axelrod, who was instrumental in getting the president elected twice but who will now give us his independent and unvarnished analysis?!). It is the Supreme Court’s granting review in McCutcheon v. FEC. The case is the next logical step in the series of campaign finance cases. At issue is whether the federal election donation dollar limits ($2,500 to a single candidate per race and $117,000 for a two-year period, including $46,200 for political candidates and $70,800 to political committees and PACs). The Supreme Court left open in the Citizens United case the potential for striking down limits on contributions as opposed to spending limits. In a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the judges held that although there was a legitimate interest in preventing corruption, “contributing a large amount of money does not ipso facto implicate the government’s anticorruption interest.” Nevertheless, the court upheld the limits. As an aside the lower court judges noted, “Plaintiffs raise the troubling possibility that Citizens United undermined the entire contribution limits scheme, but whether that case will ultimately spur a new evaluation of Buckley is a question for the Supreme Court, not us.” And now it will.
“Justices Take On Campaign Funds; High Court to Review Caps on Individuals’ Total Donations; Challenge Brought.” Wall Street Journal. February 19, 2013.
“Supreme Court Takes Case on Overall Limit to Political Gifts.” New York Times. February 19, 2013.
“Campaign Donations and Political Corruption.” Opinion. New York Times. February 19, 2013.
“Oregon banks and credit unions once again at odds over tax-exempt status.” By Brent Hunsberger. Oregonian. February 20, 2013. Protesters gathered outside a JPMorgan Chase & Co. branch downtown Portland in 2011 before marching to Northwest Resource Federal Credit Union in Old Town on “Move Your Money Day.” The “Move Your Money” effort — part of the Occupy movement — is among factors that have contributed to significant growth for credit unions. Oregon banks argue that credit unions, as they become more similar to banks, should be taxed like banks, too. It’s becoming as reliable as interest on a time deposit: banks and credit unions clashing in the Oregon Legislature over the latter’s tax-free status. This year, the clash has become a deliberately public one. The Oregon Bankers Association has pushed legislation that would require Oregon’s largest credit unions to pay excise taxes, meet new community-lending requirements, and disclose more about their loans to businesses and services offered to low-income members. The association also paid for two recent consultants’ reports highlighting the growth of Oregon’s largest credit unions and the revenue that could be raised by taxing them. “This is about credit unions that have become pretty indistinguishable from banks,” said association president Linda Wilhelms Navarro. “Tax-exempt organizations have to fulfill a public benefit to justify the subsidy.” The Northwest Credit Union Association is fighting back, hiring Gallatin Public Affairs, a prominent Portland-based public relations and lobbying firm, to fight back. This week, it’s sending legislators results of a survey showing Oregonians favor credit unions and their tax break. Bankers have long held that credit unions’ nonprofit, tax-exempt status gives them an unfair competitive advantage. They say the largest no longer resemble the cooperatives that served a niche deserving a tax break. Credit unions counter that they can’t raise investor money as banks can and are sometimes limited by whom they can take as members. Their higher savings rates and lower loan rates generate economic benefits that justify the exemption. In Oregon, credit unions hold just less than one-fourth of the deposits held by banks.
“Sovereign Grace Ministries Uses First Amendment As Defense In Sex Abuse Case.” By Eric Tucker. Huffington Post. February 30, 2013. A small evangelical Christian denomination called Sovereign Grace Ministries was already grappling with fractured leadership, outside scrutiny of its policies and public criticism from former members when a new round of problems emerged. A lawsuit last fall brought by former members accused church officials of covering up allegations of child sexual abuse committed by its members. Then a onetime member of the church’s former flagship congregation was indicted in December on charges that he molested multiple boys in the 1980s while involved in youth ministries. The church hasn’t yet answered the specific accusations, but has signaled that it may lean on the First Amendment – a defense that religious institutions have used repeatedly and with some limited success in the last decade to inoculate themselves from sex abuse claims. A statement issued in response to the lawsuit, filed in Maryland, says permitting courts to second-guess confidential advice given by church leaders to congregation members would “represent a blow to the First Amendment.” “We are saddened that lawyers are now, in essence, seeking to violate those rights by asking judges and juries, years after such pastoral assistance was sought, to dictate what sort of biblical counsel they think should have been provided,” the statement said. The church’s formal response to the lawsuit, due Monday, is expected to provide a window into its legal strategy. The First Amendment argument, advanced by some legal scholars, derives from a belief that churches ought to be considered autonomous, self-governing institutions whose internal decision-making is off-limits to secular courts. Religious institutions, including the Roman Catholic Church, have invoked the Constitution in arguing that they shouldn’t be liable for the hiring or supervision of a priest facing abuse allegations.
“Waco’s Assault on Religious Toleration; Americans tend to accept different beliefs. Less so the government.” By Philip Jenkins. Wall Street Journal. February 21, 2013. Twenty years ago, on Feb. 28, 1993, a firefight near Waco, Texas, began a weeks-long confrontation between members of the Branch Davidian sect and agents of the federal government. The conflict culminated at the sect’s compound known as Mount Carmel on April 19, with the deaths, as a fire spread through the buildings, of 80 sect members, including 20 children. Looking over the span of American history, we must be struck by what a radical departure the conflict marked in religious terms. Rather than ask what could have led believers to follow such a bizarre movement, we should see the Davidians as part of a well-established tradition of religious movements in America. It is the ferocity of the official response that still demands explanation. From the earliest days of British settlement, religious secession has been a fundamental theme of America’s history. Throughout that history, evangelical and apocalyptic ideas have been commonplace, boosted by repeated revivals and spiritual awakenings. Sometimes, religious fervor has spawned new denominations, and often it has driven believers to seek out new territories. For the most part, these sects were tolerated. Though some religious groups (most notably the Mormons) have occasionally faced violent opposition, Americans have proved remarkably tolerant of religious separatists. If people who believe in imminent apocalypse feel the need to flee the wrath to come and seek refuge in the wilderness, why shouldn’t they?
“IRS Should Bar Dark Money Groups From Funding Political Ads, Lawsuit Says.” By Kim Barker. ProPublica, February 20, 2013. A former Illinois congressional candidate and a government watchdog organization have teamed up to sue the Internal Revenue Service, claiming the agency should bar dark money groups from funding political ads. The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday by David Gill, his campaign committee and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, is the first to challenge how the IRS regulates political spending by social welfare nonprofits, campaign-finance experts say. As ProPublica has reported, these nonprofits, often called dark money groups because they don’t have to identify their donors, have increasingly become major players in politics since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in early 2010.