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During last night’s CNN Town Hall, focused on issues relating to the LGBTQ community, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was asked whether churches should lose their tax-exempt status if they opposed same-sex marriage.

His response was a blunt “Yes.”

It was a shocking statement from a presidential candidate — though not entirely unexpected from someone who needs to win over progressives if he wants any shot at moving up in the polls. And while he was praised online by many for his response, he actually got this one wrong.

There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.

And so, as president, we’re going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon human rights of our fellow Americans.

That is pure catnip for the Religious Right. They’ll be able to fundraise off his answer for years to come. Unfortunately, they would have a point.

This wasn’t a tough question even if the wording was somewhat awkward. Churches should be allowed to believe whatever they want. If they want to say the Earth is flat, and evolution is a hoax, and God created Adam and Eve for a reason, they should be allowed to do all of that without being punished by the government. Taking away a tax exemption that all non-profits receive by default, solely because of something awful they think, would be a punishment.

It would be better for churches to be held to the same standards as other non-profits. They should have to file the same paperwork as other charities. They should be transparent about where their donations go and what their pastors get paid. They shouldn’t be telling their congregations how to vote.

Violate those rules, lose your tax exemption. Simple. If all of that were enforced, as it should be, we’d be in business. (Right now, religious institutions don’t even have to file the same paperwork as secular non-profits; that’s a very real problem.)

But O’Rourke said opposing same-sex marriage was violation enough. He’s wrong. A pastor should have the right to refuse to bless or perform a same-sex ceremony in the church without it interfering with the church’s non-profit status.

A Christian judge who works at a courthouse shouldn’t get that leeway, of course.

What matters is civil marriage and how the government treats same-sex couples. I don’t give a damn if a bigot pastor remains a bigot within his bubble. The second he tries injecting those harmful ideas beyond the bubble, by all means, condemn him until your throat is hoarse.

We’re not talking about Christian employees like Kim Davis discriminating against gay couples. We’re not talking about Christian business owners refusing to sell goods for a same-sex wedding. We’re not talking about Christian funeral directors demanding that trans employees fit a stereotypical gender role.

This is about beliefs. LGBTQ civil rights are not in jeopardy just because certain Christians think they’re faking it. If the government did what it’s supposed to do, then we could have a debate about how to best persuade conservative Christians to get over their fear and hate. But in regards to that, the biggest concern we face isn’t evangelical pastors preaching ignorance to their followers; it’s Republicans writing laws based on right-wing theology and a conservative Supreme Court upholding them.

O’Rourke’s answer makes it sound like he wants to punish thought, not action. By his logic, we should also revoke the tax exemptions of non-profit anti-abortion groups since they want to abolish women’s rights. But that’s a slippery slope we don’t want to go down since it could easily be turned against us.

He overstepped the line of separation between church and state. It’s unconstitutional. If he misspoke in the heat of the moment, he should say so. Just admit the mistake and move on.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.