Pastors to IRS: Come and get us

Gracie Ferrell Contributor
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Fully knowing that they will be breaking the law and possibly leaving their churches in financial shambles, between 400 and 500 pastors will sermonize on Sunday about political candidates — even endorsing them from the pulpit. And the Internal Revenue Service will be watching.

“Pastors talk about issues that are held by the candidates,” Erik Stanley told The Daily Caller. Stanely is senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund and head of its Pulpit Initiative.

“They can choose the issues. They talk about what the Bible says about those particularly issues and based on that, they make a recommendation … about the issues the candidate holds.”

Houses of worship, like other non-profit organizations, pay no federal income tax and can promise tax deductions to their donors. In return, the IRS forbids churches from attempting to “influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities” or “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

The Alliance Defense Fund sees this this as “government censorship” of sermons. It created Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008 in protest, beginning with a group of 33 pastors.

So far, the IRS has not punished any pastors for participating. But that could change as the movement gathers steam.

“For the first three years we were purposefully keeping it small because we weren’t sure what the IRS was going to do,” Stanley told TheDC.

Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the government’s hands are tied on the issue. A 2009 court case, he told TheDC, determined that the IRS has been misusing its authority to audit churches, failing to get approval from senior officials before demanding financial records.

Although that case wasn’t about church electioneering, it has forced the IRS to rewrite its rules about how to handle any situation that could result in a church audit.

Lynn doesn’t see government prohibition against political campaigning from the pulpit as censorship, but as a trade-off. Churches are exempt from taxes, he says, in return for not using the proceeds for political activities.

“Nothing is being squelched,” he said. “The only thing being required in exchange for the lucrative tax exemption is that you don’t participate in partisan activity.”

Despite the threat of losing their churches’ tax-exempt status — a potentially huge financial blow — pastors participating in Sunday’s protest will do so openly. After previous Pulpit Freedom Sundays, some pastors sent tapes and recordings of their sermons to the IRS in hopes of prodding the government into a public fight.

Stanley insists that the Alliance Defense Fund is politically nonpartisan. “We are focused on making sure a pastor has the right to freely speak from his pulpit without fear of punishment,” he said, adding that preachers from a wide array of denominations including Mormons, Catholics, Anglicans and Quakers will participate on Sunday.

But Lynn counters that there isn’t much political diversity among this Sunday’s participating pastors. “In almost every instance, the person being endorsed is a conservative candidate,” he insisted.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday’s ultimate goal is the repeal of an amendment to the tax code that became law in 1954. The so-called Johnson Amendment marked the beginning of the end for tax-exempt organizations that endorsed political candidates. In 1987 the IRS regulation was broadened to also forbid opposing candidates.

All tax-exempt organizations covered by Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code — not just churches — fall under the Johnson Amendment’s umbrella. But the Alliance Defense Fund is only fighting for the rights of religious groups, and this threatens to become a sticking point if the IRS should ever decide to relent.

“If they did it for religious groups, they would have to do it for all non-profits across the board,” said Lynn. “I don’t encourage that, but you could do it.

Religion has played a key part in the current presidential campaigns, including that of Minnesota Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

“During the most recent Republican debate, Congresswoman Bachmann pointed out that religious liberty is ‘a foundational principle’ of our country,” said Bachmann’s spokesperson and press aid, Alice Stewart, in a statement to the Daily Caller.

“She went on to say that people of faith should be ‘able to practice religious liberty in the public square.’ The First Amendment protects free religious expression and free speech, and Michele believes those rights should not be stopped at the pulpit. Pastors and religious leaders should not be forced to surrender those basic Constitutional protections as they fulfill their calling.”

Ultimately, though, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is still a small movement that appears to represent only a small segment of U.S. clergy. A Lifeway study of 1,000 protestant pastors conducted in August revealed that 84 percent disagreed with the statement: “I believe pastors should endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit.” Fully 70 percent said they “strongly” disagreed.

Another Lifeway study, conducted in October 2008, found that less than 3 percent of Protestant pastors had endorsed political candidates from the pulpit.