Taxing segregated schools: now it's up to Congress

Who says that citizens are helpless in the face of a poor White House decision? As a result of a swift public outcry, President Reagan has shifted his view on tax exemptions for private segregated schools. His aides clearly failed to think through the consequences when the Treasury Department recently reversed a 12-year-old policy of denying such tax breaks to private institutions practicing racial discrimination. The new policy opened the President to a charge of promoting racism, and it is therefore to his credit that he has moved quickly to assure Americans that is not the case.

However, the new IRS policy of granting tax exemptions to nonprofit institutions which engage in racial bias will remain in force until Congress outlaws it. The President says he favors such a ban and will submit appropriate legislation. Splendid.

The administration maintains, justifiably, that the Internal Revenue Service should not have the authority to make social policy without legislative mandate. One can only imagine the mischief the IRS might get into if it began operating more and more solely by executive order.

It is now up to Congress to legislate guidelines for the IRS. This will not be easy, given the political pressures and the legal complexities of the issue. But the worthy goal warrants pushing ahead. Surely private schools and colleges should not be given tax benefits when they flout national policy. Church-related schools, above all, have a moral obligation to be responsive to antidiscrimination laws. They are free to practice racial segregation as matter of religious principle if they choose, but in such case why should they be given government support in the form of tax exemptions? All Americans in such case would then be asked to pay for maintaining racial bias. Let's not forget, too, that individual contributions to nonprofit institutions are tax deductible; so segregated organizations benefit already even before being allowed tax exemptions.

President Reagan promises to work with Congress to disallow the latter type of tax benefits. Those who worried about the IRS decision can ask him to apply all the determination which he exhibited in getting his tax program through. The national goal of racial equality can use his proven political skill.

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