Pastors to challenge IRS over political endorsements, and they’re likely to get away with it

LOS ANGELES — In a matter of days, some 1,400 American pastors are planning to break the law. And they’re … Continued

LOS ANGELES — In a matter of days, some 1,400 American pastors are planning to break the law.

And they’re likely to get away with it.

As part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” on Oct. 7, religious leaders across the country will endorse political candidates — an act that flies in the face of Internal Revenue Service rules about what tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, can and cannot do.

The IRS says tax-exempt organizations, or what they refer to as a 501(c)(3), are prohibited from participating in partisan campaigning for or against political candidates. Yet, despite what’s in the rules, the agency continues to struggle to do anything about those who defy the law.

Though the regulation has been in place since 1954, in 2009, the U.S. District Court of Minnesota ruled the IRS no longer had the appropriate staff to investigate places of worship after a reorganization changed who in the agency had the authority to launch investigations.

New procedures for conducting church audits have been pending since 2009, which has left the IRS virtually impotent in conducting any kind of new investigations. The IRS did not respond to questions seeking comment.

Despite the lack of manpower, organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal ministry that first launched “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in 2008, say they take the IRS restriction seriously — even as they disagree with it.

“Every pastor and every church has the right to decide what their pastor preaches from the pulpit and to not have that dictated to them by the IRS,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly the Alliance Defense Fund.

Jim Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif., says the prohibition has caused religious leaders to shy away from speaking about what they see as theological truth, such as the belief that homosexuality is biblically unacceptable.

“The line is being slid so fast, so far, that people no longer recognize authentic biblical preaching and they’re calling it political,” he said.

Today’s parishioners, he said, are starving for religious leaders to act as “the moral compass of society.” Garlow said he’s witnessed pastors who boldly speak on political issues receive standing ovations.

But the Rev. Susan Russell, an associate pastor at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., which the IRS investigated several years ago over a 2004 antiwar sermon it claimed was illegal, said churches should dedicate themselves to being robustly political without being partisan.

All Saints, for example, has always taken a stance on social justice issues such as war or the death penalty, but they do so, Russell said, without endorsing specific candidates.

Russell, a gay rights activist, said pastors who participate in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” may claim the movement is about freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but it’s really an excuse to “jam theocracy down throats.”

In response, the IRS has taken action in recent years, albeit sporadically. In 1995, it revoked the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which had bought full-page newspaper ads opposing then-Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton.

In 2004, the IRS created the Political Activities Compliance Initiative, which investigated dozens of churches during the 2004, 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

According to recent surveys, most of the public — and even most clergy — agrees that churches are not the place for politics.

A survey conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center found that two in three Americans said churches and other houses of worship should not endorse one candidate over another; 27 percent said they should.

And nearly 90 percent of Protestant pastors believe they should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit, according to a recent survey conducted by Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research.

Nina Crimm and Laurence Winer, authors of the 2011 book “Politics, Taxes, and the Pulpit,” say most clergy don’t know where the rule came from in the first place..

Lyndon B. Johnson, who was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas in 1954, introduced the rule as an attempt to silence nonprofit groups who opposed him; churches had nothing to do with it, but were caught up with other tax-exempt groups.

“It was pure political opportunism on behalf of Johnson,” points out Winer.

One solution, Crimm and Winer say, is to make a slight accommodation to the existing rule, so that pastors are free to communicate any political idea internally with congregants but prohibited from broadcasting that message publicly, say on television.

For now, pastors participating in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” some of whom will be sending their taped sermons to the IRS, know they are unlikely to get what they want: a reaction from the agency that leads to a lawsuit and a court ruling that the restriction is unconstitutional.

Either way, Stanley, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, says his side will win. Even if there is no lawsuit, the message is clear.

“There should be a separation between church and state,” he said. “The government does not control what happens inside a church.”

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • cvb05

    Jesus instructed his followers to “give unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s”- in other words, pay your taxes.

  • MONTYMOOSE

    Pastors are shepherds of their flock. A good shepherd leads their flock in the ways they feel are right to do and should not be muzzled in anyway. If someone doesnt not want to hear it then in this country they are free to go to another church.

    NOW AS FAR AS YOUR COMMENT :They use every public resource & utility the rest of us use & they contribute nothing to the pot. Do they even have to pay postage at the regular rate? That I don’t know. They get discounts on everything they DO pay for – office supplies, for example. !!

    THIS SOUNDS EXACTLY WHAT OUR POLITICIANS GET…

  • DavidJ9

    Religion is just another business and should pay taxes like any other business.

Read More Articles

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

shutterstock_186566975
Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

shutterstock_186090179
How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

pews
Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

2337221655_c1671d2e5e_b
Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

bible
Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

csl_wall_paper
What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.