'Pulpit Freedom' Truth Or Dare: Hey, ADF, Show Us The Beef

If these pastors are so eager to spread the word about their defiance of that mean old IRS, why aren't they crowing about it openly?

Right-wing Web sites have been all atwitter about the Alliance Defense Fund's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" that took place Sept. 27, hailing it as a bold exercise in nose-thumbing at the Internal Revenue Service.

According to an ADF press release issued before the event, more than 80 pastors planned to take part in the event. "Some the pastors preaching Sunday will address the positions of candidates in current state governor's races; others will address the positions of existing government officials or people who have declared themselves for office in future elections."

Nearly two weeks have passed, and I'm ready to quote those famous words of yesteryear: "Where's the beef?"

A quick recap of the issue: Houses of worship -- and other non-profits in the 501(c)3 category -- are barred by the Internal Revenue Code from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The ADF and other Religious Right groups chafe at this federal statute because they would love to build a partisan political machine based in fundamentalist churches.

ADF lawyers say the electioneering limit is unconstitutional. They'd like to challenge it in court and have been urging pastors to openly violate the law, in the hopes of sparking an IRS crackdown. That, in turn, could lead to a legal challenge.

Prodded by the ADF, pastors supposedly issued pulpit endorsements on Sept. 27. The problem is, I have been unable to find evidence of any.

Only two states have gubernatorial elections this year – New Jersey and Virginia. I spent a good bit of time after Pulpit Freedom Sunday canvassing the Web sites of newspapers in both states. I found no stories about pulpit endorsements. I also searched Nexis, a comprehensive news database, and Google News. Again, I had no luck

My next step was to obtain a list of the churches that took part in the event from the ADF's site. Not all of the churches have Web sites, but I visited every one in Virginia and New Jersey that does, figuring I might find an incriminating sermon posted online. I found nothing.

If these pastors are so eager to spread the word about their defiance of that mean old IRS, why aren't they crowing about it openly?

I have to wonder if the ADF isn't just blowing a lot of smoke. Note that its press release says that some pastors planned to address the positions of current officeholders or possible candidates in the future.

These actions are legal. A pastor can criticize President Barack Obama's stands or praise Sarah Palin's. There is no presidential election this year, and neither Obama nor Palin is, at this writing, a declared candidate for any office.

Even addressing the issue positions of declared candidates wouldn't necessarily get a pastor in trouble, if it is done in a manner that doesn't lead to endorsement of or opposition to a candidate using church resources.

I've noticed that ADF seems less brazen about this year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The group's language is cagier, more cautious. The organization is talking more about speaking "biblical truths" from the pulpit and less about out-and-out candidate endorsements.

Maybe this is because in 2008, a group of clergy in Ohio asked the IRS to investigate the ADF, asserting that the organization may have run afoul of the professional ethics rules that govern tax attorneys by urging churches to violate the law.

Let's quit fooling around, ADF. You say you want to spark a new test in the courts. Fair enough. AU is willing to help out by reporting offenders to the IRS under our "Project Fair Play." Did any of the clergy who took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday violate the law or not?

If so, send us the evidence. We know what to do with it.