'Pulpit Freedom' Folderol: ADF Take On Church Politicking Taxes My Patience – And The Facts

I don't see any references to tax exemption anywhere in the Constitution.

Yesterday my colleague Sandhya Bathija wrote about attending her first "Values Voter Summit." I was there, too, but I've been at this for a long time. Before there was a Summit, I used to attend national meetings of the Christian Coalition that were very similar.

I've been exposed to so much Religious Right folderol over the years that I tend to look at things with a rather jaundiced eye. But even I was taken aback this year by some of the claims made by two Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) attorneys at a Saturday afternoon breakout session.

The session focused on church politicking and the ADF's upcoming "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." I understand that the ADF does not agree with Americans United on this issue, but some of arguments they employed seemed to me to be – let's just say – "creative."

Attorneys Benjamin Bull and Eric Stanley both claimed that tax exemption for churches is a constitutional right. Bull and Stanley are attorneys, and I'm not. But I can read, and I don't see any references to tax exemption anywhere in the Constitution. I asked AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee for his thoughts. With tongue firmly in cheek, he explained that I must be reading from the expurgated version of the Constitution.

Bull and Stanley also discussed a 2000 opinion from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case, Branch Ministries v. Rosotti, dealt with a New York church that lost its tax-exempt status after it ran a newspaper ad urging people not to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992. Attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice defended the church in court.

According to Bull and Stanley, the loss of tax exemption was no big deal, and the Branch Ministries case was actually a victory for their side! They said the IRS merely took back a letter declaring the Church at Pierce Creek tax exempt. The church was able to reorganize and begin functioning as a tax-exempt entity once again.

Not quite. As a condition of being tax exempt, the church had to agree it would not violate federal tax law again. So did the church win the right to endorse or oppose candidates? Not at all. They had to stop doing it.

The decision was certainly no win for the Religious Right. In the ruling, the appeals court unanimously rejected arguments that the IRS regulations violate freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In other words, they shot down the core argument the ADF relies on today. Some victory!

The penalties for violating the IRS regulations are not that severe, Bull and Stanley said. I say, tell that to religious groups founded by TV preachers Robertson and Jerry Falwell, both of which were assessed financial penalties for illegal politicking -- $50,000 in Falwell's case. Or tell it to some of the churches that have been audited by the IRS. It's nice that the ADF thinks being audited is no big deal. Try going through one once.

Finally, Stanley pointed out that churches once were free to endorse or oppose candidates. That is true. They could do so until the federal tax code was amended in 1954 by congressional action.

Stanley noted that several clergy attacked Thomas Jefferson in 1800, and many Protestant leaders went after New York governor Al Smith, a Catholic, during the 1928 presidential election.

He didn't point out that those clergy told lies about Jefferson and Smith. Jefferson was accused of being a radical hater of Christianity who would order all Bibles burned. Smith, some Protestant ministers ranted, would let the pope run America. The ADF may think it's a good idea to invite this type of partisan calumny back into our tax-exempt pulpits; I don't. If you want to engage in swift-boating, do it through a 527 group, not a non-profit house of worship.

Although I disagree strongly with the ADF on this issue, I do want to thank the group for one thing: Bull and Stanley's PowerPoint presentation included a quote from me, a passage from a blog post I did on this issue back in April. It's always nice to know the folks at the ADF are reading "The Wall of Separation."

I'd urge them to keep it up. Maybe they'll learn something.