Do churches have the right to violate federal tax law and use the donations of the faithful to engage in partisan politics? Religious Right activists seem to think so, and they're pressing for a test case in federal court.
According to today's Wall Street Journal, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is conspiring with a handful of scofflaw clergy to defy the tax-law ban on candidate endorsements by tax-exempt groups. On Sept. 28, these ministers plan to use their pulpits to preach about candidates and spark a showdown.
The ADF, a theocracy-minded legal operation founded by right-wing religious broadcasters, hopes the Internal Revenue Service will launch investigations of these churches, thus opening the door to a federal test case of the constitutionality of the law.
One of the conspirators is the Rev. Steve Riggle, the notoriously political pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston. He told the newspaper that he advised his congregation from the pulpit in March that he was supporting Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.
That's no surprise. Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported Riggle's church to the IRS in March after he issued an endorsement of a Republican congressional candidate on church letterhead. We didn't know about the pulpit endorsement or we would have told the IRS about that too!
Here's some news for the ADF: The federal tax law in question has already been tested in federal court and upheld!
In May of 2000, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously held that the IRS properly revoked the tax exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek, a congregation near Binghamton, N.Y., that bought newspaper ads in 1992 opposing presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
The court ruled that "the revocation of the Church's tax-exempt status neither violated the Constitution nor exceeded the IRS's statutory authority."
Wow! What could have happened? Maybe the church didn't have good legal representation. Wrong! The congregation was represented by none other than Jay Sekulow, the evil genius who heads TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.
Well, maybe the appellate court panel was a bunch of commie pinko liberal activist secular humanists. Wrong! The three judges were Reagan appointees. The judge who wrote the opinion was James Buckley, a scion of the ultra-conservative Buckley family and brother of William F. Buckley.
So why is the ADF trying this stunt? The federal courts have been relentlessly stacked in recent years with right-wing activists who may, just may, be willing to strike down this federal tax law and unleash a wave of church-based partisanship.
Here's a better idea. If a few misguided churches want to become cogs in a political machine, they can simply give up their tax exemptions and play by the same tax and election-law rules as everybody else.
As Americans United's Rob Boston told The Wall Street Journal, "Tax exemption is a benefit, and it comes with conditions. So if any pastor out there feels he is gagged or can't speak on partisan politics...forgo the tax exemption and say what you want."
The vast majority of American clergy have no desire to misuse their leadership positions to dabble in elections. They know they are perfectly free to address religious, moral and, yes, political issues from the pulpit. They just can't use the donations of their flock to support or oppose candidates.
Allowing churches and other tax-exempt groups to intervene in elections would open an enormous loophole in our fair-elections laws and jeopardize our democracy. It would fan the flames of interfaith hostility and invite the congregations with the largest memberships to dominate political life in our communities.
Pulpit partisanship would also bitterly divide many congregations and distract attention from the spiritual and charitable purposes that draw them together in the first place.
I hope clergy across America boldly speak out against the ADF's nefarious scheme in the loudest possible terms.