A legal advocacy group founded by Religious Right broadcasters is recruiting pastors for an act of civil disobedience by preaching about political candidates in violation of rules against politicking for non-profit charities imposed by the Internal Revenue Service.
The Alliance Defense Fund, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., hopes its Sept. 28 “Pulpit Initiative” will prompt a legal battle allowing the Christian lawyer group to argue in court the ban violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Through strategic lawsuits against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), ADF seeks to restore the right of each pastor to speak Scriptural truth from the pulpit about moral, social, governmental, and other issues without fear of losing his church’s tax exempt status,” says an FAQ about the initiative on the ADF Web site.
“Pastors have a right to speak about biblical values from the pulpit without fear of punishment,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said in a press release. “No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights.”
By law, organizations exempt from paying taxes under IRS Code section 501(c)(3) may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
An organization founded in 1994 by 30 Christian Right leaders including Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, the ADF considers itself an answer to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ADF says groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have used the ban on pulpit electioneering, added to the law in 1954 at the initiative of then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, to “create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for any church that dares to speak Scriptural truth about candidates for office.”
“It is time for the intimidation and threats to end,” says a Pulpit Initiative letter of intent. “Churches and pastors have a constitutional right to speak freely and truthfully from the pulpit, even on candidates and voting, without fearing loss of their tax exemption.”
Barry Lynn of Americans United called the effort “a truly deplorable scheme.”
“Federal tax law rightly requires churches and other tax-exempt groups to use their resources for religious and charitable purposes, not partisan politics,” he said. “When the faithful put their hard-earned dollars in the collection plate, they don’t expect it to wind up pushing some politician’s campaign.”
The ADF claims the electioneering ban violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it requires the government to excessively monitor religious institutions; the Free Exercise Clause, because it substantially burdens a church’s exercise of religion; and the Free Speech Clause, because it puts conditions on tax exemption based solely on the content of speech.
Baptist leaders contacted by EthicsDaily.com, however, said the restrictions exist for good reason.
“Preachers who want to turn their churches into political action committees need to play by the same rules as all the other political action committees in our country,” said Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. “They need to give up their tax-exempt status. They should not expect American taxpayers to subsidize their political activities. Nobody gets a tax deduction when they make contributions to other political organizations.”
“It is always interesting that politics seems to find a way to trump principle in an election year,” said Larry McSwain, professor of ethics and leadership at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with the pastor who wants to use the pulpit to help elect a favorite candidate as an exercise in free speech, which is the argument of the Alliance Defense Fund, but not under the cover of tax exemption,” McSwain said. “Churches who want to elect politicians should NOT register as tax-exempt houses of worship. The IRS rules are fair and nothing is more unfair than to scream for separation with one voice while asking for the benefits of government support with another. Church members should give their money freely and without tax exemption if they want their pastor to be a partisan political voice.”
Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, told the Associated Press that churches should be involved in public issues, but partisan activity can “compromise the essential calling to spread the gospel.”
“The church can’t raise prophetic fist at a candidate or at a party when it’s locked up in a tight bear hug with that candidate or party,” Walker said.
The ADF is offering to assist pastors in preparing sermons carefully crafted to contend the IRS ban violates the constitution. If the IRS investigates them, they can sue the IRS and the ADF will defend them for free.
If a lawsuit is unsuccessful, the group admits, the IRS could levy an excise tax on the church or revoke its tax-exempt status for a period of time. But it says that losing tax exemption temporarily would likely have “very little impact” on a church’s ability to raise money.
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Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.