Election 2008


Pastors Break Law to Name Their Presidential Picks

September 26, 2008 05:15 PM
by Liz Colville
This Sunday, more than 30 pastors nationwide will sermonize about their presidential pick, challenging a law barring tax-exempt organizations from partisan politics.

‘Direct Challenge to Federal Tax Law’

The pastors, who are expected to use this Sunday’s sermons to argue their political preference, are highlighting what they see as the unconstitutional law that says tax-exempt institutions are prohibited from sharing political beliefs. By “embracing” the “risk” associated with breaking that law, the Christian Science Monitor writes, the pastors are “hoping their actions will trigger an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, which would then enable a Christian legal advocacy group to take the IRS to court and challenge the constitutionality of the ban.”

That group, the Alliance Defense Fund, recruited the pastors for an event they are dubbing “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” according to the Monitor. Based in Arizona, ADF is making the case that the IRS tax code that applies to churches violates the First Amendment. The pastors “plan to then send copies of their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service,” according to The New York Times.

Background: Churches, free speech and the IRS

The Johnson Amendment, part of the Revenue Act of 1954, sponsored by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, was enacted to “prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity,” according to the IRS Web site. In 1987, Congress “amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.”

There have been previous attempts to argue for the unconstitutionality of the 501(c)(3) IRS tax code. One notable case is Branch Industries Inc. v. Rossotti. Branch Industries Inc., a group of churches, had its tax-exempt status revoked after it ran a newspaper ad against President Clinton during the 1992 campaign. Branch argued that the IRS had shown discrimination against the organization by not revoking the rights of other churches, giving several examples of politically-themed sermons for which churches were not penalized. The court ruled that the IRS “was justified in revoking the tax-exempt status of the Church” because the examples the plaintiffs gave were indirect and nearly all of them were “candidates or other political figures speaking from the pulpits of churches or at synagogues.”

In 2002, a bill called the House of Worship Political Speech Protection Act was introduced, intended to free “churches—but not other charities or nonprofit groups—to participate in campaigns,” according to the Florida Times-Union. The Rev. Welton Gaddy of the D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance said, “If this legislation passed, we would see houses of worship politicized to the point that they would lose both their prophetic voice and their pastoral presence.” Gaddy has made similar remarks about this Sunday’s event.

A more recent bill, H.R. 2275, was introduced in the House by Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) in 2007, advocating for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, specifically the “prohibition against churches and other tax-exempt organizations participating in political campaigns or supporting or opposing candidates for public office.” The bill has not yet been scheduled for debate.

Opinion & Analysis: Separation of Church and State

Religious figures and legal experts against the event argue that it is “not a free speech issue.” “Any person, including a pastor, can endorse a candidate as a private individual,” Rev. Eric Williams told the Monitor. “And if a church wants to do it, it can give up its tax-exempt status.”

In a press release for the event, ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said, “Pastors have a right to speak about Biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment. No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights.”

In an editorial in the Washington Times, Stanley clarified that Pulpit Freedom Sunday “is not a demand that pastors endorse candidates. It is a plan to let churches decide for themselves how they will exercise their First Amendment rights without fearing the tax man.” He goes on to say that, “Ironically, under current law, a pastor can talk about anything but the positions of electoral candidates. Yes, it’s silly. Arguing that a tax agency should hold veto power over sermon content is like arguing that the Department of Transportation should decide a school lunch menu.”

In a counterpoint published in the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also known as AU, references numerous religious figures living and dead who have freely pontificated on religious topics. “We have a dazzling amount of freedom to express the most controversial viewpoints imaginable from American pulpits,” Lynn said. “We just can’t have sermons converted into political advertisements for candidates.” He also argues that the Johnson Amendment “doesn’t bar ‘political’ statements; it prohibits declarations ‘in support of or in opposition to candidates for public office.’”

The AU’s Project Fair Play, started in 1996, works to prevent politicizing at American houses of worship by “educat[ing] religious leaders and other Americans about tax exemption and political activity. We send informational letters to clergy, and we file complaints with the IRS when there [are] egregious violations.” The project’s Web site declares in its mission statement: “We do not want to see the United States divided into sectarian political blocs, a trend that has troubled so many countries.”

Reference: I.R.S. tax guide for churches


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