September 29, 2015; Fox News

The presidential campaign is increasingly veering into nonprofit territory. First, there was the issue of connections between Hillary Clinton and donors to the Clinton Foundation. Then, Donald Trump showed up at the USS Iowa for a speech and fundraiser for an all-but-phony veterans nonprofit whose 501(c) status has been revoked by the IRS. Now, the nonprofit sector has intersected with the overpopulated presidential primaries again in the candidacy of neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Carson has famously pronounced his opposition to a Muslim becoming president, apparently out of some inchoate fear that a Muslim would install sharia law. Although the U.S. Constitution explicitly precludes any kind of religious test for political office, Carson believes that a candidate could not possibly both be a Muslim and uphold the Constitution. The same, of course, was said about Catholics when Al Smith and John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency, and more recently about Mormons with the campaign of Mitt Romney. Apparently, Carson isn’t concerned that someone might raise a similar concern about Seventh Day Adventists like himself.

Although Carson fashions himself as something of a constitutionalist, he has been criticized by the nation’s foremost Muslim civil rights organization. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called on him to “withdraw from the presidential race because he is unfit to lead, because his views are inconsistent with the United States Constitution.” CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad, described Carson as “anti-Muslim” and reminded the candidate that the Constitution makes it clear that there should be “no religious test” for candidates for government office.

However, Carson isn’t to be fended off that easily. Apparently, a Gallup poll this past June indicated that 38 percent of Americans agree with Carson about not wanting to ever contemplate a Muslim occupant of the White House. The only less popular potential presidential options would be an atheist or a socialist. A poll suggests even worse attitudes, that 57 percent of Americans agree with Carson—including four out of ten Democrats and more than four out of five Republicans.

The right-wing media has taken up the issue by suggesting that CAIR violated 501(c)(3) regulations prohibiting public charities from engaging in or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or opposed to political candidates. Megyn Kelly of Fox News initiated the charge that CAIR might have violated the law with its call for Carson to withdraw from the campaign. The candidate himself has taken up the charge, too. On the Carson for President website, the Carson campaign announced that CAIR’s demand for Carson’s withdrawal has “brazenly violated IRS rules.”

The statement went on to link the criticism of Carson’s anti-Muslim sentiments with other insinuations:

This is not the first time that CAIR has disrespected U.S. laws or America. It has previously lost its tax-exempt status by failing to file federal taxes three years in a row. It had also been named by federal prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal conspiracy to funnel money to Hamas, a terrorist organization.

The Carson campaign called on the IRS to revoke CAIR’s tax-exempt status. Referring obliquely to the Lois Lerner scandal, the Carson statement said that the Obama administration had used to the IRS to “systematically target…conservative nonprofit groups for politically motivated audits and harassment,” but now should “properly do its job and punish the real violators of America’s laws and regulations.”

The Kelly/Carson charge is ridiculous. CAIR didn’t take a position for or against Carson vis-à-vis any other candidate, but spoke out against his stance in violation of the clear language of the U.S. Constitution. Unless Carson is running against the Constitution itself, CAIR is hardly taking a partisan stance and did not call for or instruct people to vote for or against anyone. Rather, it is standing up against religious bigotry that contradicts the clear statement of the Constitution against a religious test for public office. CAIR is doing what one would hope any civil rights organization should do, standing with the Constitution and standing up for the religious tolerance upon which the United States was founded.

This is the kind of core nonprofit issue that every nonprofit should understand. One would hope that the nation’s nonprofit leadership organizations, Independent Sector and the National Council of Nonprofits, would have the courage to back CAIR in this controversy and underscore the importance of the nonprofit commitment to core principles of democracy and religious freedom.—Rick Cohen