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A cardinal truth

COMPLIMENTS TO CARDINAL Roger M. Mahony, who not only has been saying the right things about illegal immigrants but also has been reinforcing the right of religious leaders to speak out on the moral ramifications of political issues. The leader of the archdiocese that encompasses the nation’s largest population of illegal immigrants spoke to a reality that cannot be denied, even among vigilante border guards: The current immigration situation cannot hold.

It is neither ethical nor sustainable for the U.S. to benefit from the willingness of an estimated 8 million people to work hard at uninviting jobs for low wages, yet deny them any formal status, down to the right to drive. At the same time, the federal government puts state and local taxpayers in the position of paying for schooling and healthcare while it virtually ignores the existence of those creating the strain on the services.

Reasonable people realize that deporting all illegal immigrants would be impossible as well as economically suicidal. And as a moral issue, this nation’s treatment of illegal immigrants, and its reliance on a black market for labor, speaks poorly about the nature of our society. Could we become a nation that prohibits the Catholic Church and other charities from helping hungry or sick people in our midst, as the House-passed version of immigration reform would have it?

That’s why, despite what misguided federal rules say, religious leaders have a right to take positions on political issues. The Internal Revenue Service has threatened the tax-exempt status of dozens of churches that have done so. The highest profile of these was another local center of faith -- an Episcopal church in Pasadena whose former rector gave an anti-Iraq war sermon during the last presidential campaign.

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Although Mahony’s comments are election related in only the remotest sense, and thus probably safe as far as the IRS is concerned, his strong stance is a good example of why those rules should be changed. Religious leaders feel a moral imperative to air their views, whether it’s on the liberal side against war (and the elected officials who wage it), or the conservative side against abortion (and the elected officials who support its availability).

It’s true that other tax-exempt groups are barred from engaging in political speech, lest taxpayers find themselves subsidizing speech with which they don’t agree. But it may be time to reconsider this prohibition, or the granting of tax-exempt status in the first place. It’s rather disturbing to have tax authorities policing speech to determine who is or isn’t involved in political activity.

In this context, we do know that separation of church and state was intended to protect citizens from the government having a say about religion, not to silence religious leaders on public issues. Mahony is committed to the humane treatment of all people in this country -- a perspective that Congress should consider as well.


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