'Pulpit Freedom Sunday': The Next Steps

You know you're out pretty far on a right-wing limb when even Cal Thomas disagrees with you!

Yesterday Americans United reported six churches to the Internal Revenue Service for violating federal tax law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Five of the churches were taking part in the so-called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund. (The sixth was inspired by it.)

Thirty-three churches participated in this reckless stunt. Americans United relied on media reports to compile its complaints to the IRS. We have not ruled out reporting the other churches if more information about what went on in them becomes available. However, the ADF says it will send copies of each pastors' sermon to the IRS, so the tax agency should have all the information it needs to launch investigations of these congregations. (See the full ADF list of participating churches here.

In the lead-up to "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," the IRS issued a written statement reading in part, "We  are monitoring the situation and  will take action as appropriate."

That could be an understatement. The IRS maintains a special project called the Political Activity Compliance Initiative (PACI) designed to examine allegations of inappropriate politicking by non-profits. It is staffed by career IRS agents with expertise in this field. Complaints are thoroughly examined, and the IRS does not hesitate to act if the facts warrant it. In 2004, the IRS received 166 complaints of improper partisan politicking by non-profits; 110 of them were investigated. (The IRS's 2006 report on PACI can be read here.)

It's a shame it has come to this. The ADF is determined to bring a new case into the courts, a legal challenge I am convinced they will lose. Tax exemption is a benefit, not a constitutional right. It comes with conditions, and one of those conditions is the "no-politicking" rule.

Ironically, the ADF gambit comes at a time when more and more Americans are telling pollsters they don't want their churches to intervene in partisan politics. Americans go to church for spiritual reasons, not to get a list of candidates to vote for or against.

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who is not exactly a flaming liberal, made this point recently. Reflecting on why people attend church in the first place, Thomas wrote, "It is not, or should not be, in order to pledge allegiance to a party, candidate or earthly agenda. One can spend inordinate amounts of time on that subject simply by watching cable TV, or listening to talk radio, or reading the newspapers. No matter how hard they try to protect the gospel from corruption, ministers who focus on politics and politicians as a means of redemption must minimize their ultimate calling and message."

You know you're out pretty far on a right-wing limb when even Thomas disagrees with you!

But now the issue is engaged, and Americans United intends to see it through. If the IRS does revoke the tax exemption of some of these churches, and the ADF files litigation challenging that action, our attorneys will intervene at the appropriate time with friend-of-the-court briefs. We'll continue to speak out in the media as well, opposing that idea that our houses of worship should act as centers of partisan politics.

The ADF and its Religious Right allies picked this fight. Those of us who support keeping America's houses of worship free of pulpit politicking intend to see that they don't win it.