On Oct. 2, a few fundamentalist clergy around the country will observe “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” They will take to their pulpits and endorse or oppose candidates in defiance of federal tax law, which prohibits nonprofits from intervention in elections.
This isn’t some occasion on the liturgical calendar or a spontaneous eruption of civic zeal. It’s part of a plot by the Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing legal group founded by theocracy-minded TV and radio preachers. The ADF-sponsored observance has one goal: to pave the way for Religious Right leaders to forge fundamentalist churches into a disciplined voting bloc.
To hear ADF lawyers talk, you’d think American clergy are currently bound and gagged by an overweening Big Brother government. In an essay last Saturday, ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said preachers are subject to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“[I]t remains a fact,” said Stanley, “that every Sunday, when pastors in America ascend the pulpit, they face the cruel and unusual prospect of exchanging their natural, God-given right to free speech for a government-ordained lexicon (if they want to keep their tax-exempt status).”
American clergy are perfectly free to address any religious, moral and political issues they wish. The only limitation is that they cannot use their tax-exempt resources to endorse or oppose political candidates.
That’s not some sort of onerous government intrusion; it’s just fair governmental application of the same rules that apply to all religious, educational and charitable organizations in the 501(c)(3) category.
If you want to be tax-exempt and you want donations to your church or other nonprofit to be tax deductible, you have be devoted to religious, educational and charitable endeavors and not be some sort of political action committee.
The vast majority of American clergy and the vast majority of the American people see this distinction as reasonable and prudent. We don’t want our churches and other nonprofits perverted into cogs in some scheming politician’s political machine.
It would be particularly destructive to politicize our houses of worship. Congregations would be bitterly divided, communities would be beset with religious tensions as congregations vied with each other for political power and the rights of minorities would be placed in grave jeopardy.
The ADF’s allies in Congress tried for years to pass legislation allowing churches to endorse candidates while keeping their tax exemption, but the campaign failed.
Now, the ADF is trying to spark a lawsuit and test the federal tax law in court. Well, here’s some news, ADF, the law has already been tested in court and upheld!
In May of 2000, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the IRS had acted within the scope of its authority when it revoked the exemption of a New York church that opposed presidential candidate Bill Clinton. (AU had reported the scofflaw congregation to the IRS and later filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Branch Ministries v. Rossotti case, supporting the IRS’s revocation.)
Writing for the unanimous court, Senior Circuit Judge James Buckley found that “the revocation of the Church’s tax-exempt status neither violated the Constitution nor exceeded the IRS’s statutory authority.”
Elsewhere, Judge Buckley soundly rejected the argument that the IRS has no legal authority to deal with the tax exemption of churches, writing, “We find this argument more creative than persuasive.”
Maybe you’ve heard of Buckley. He’s a conservative Republican appointee and the brother of famous conservative pundit William F. Buckley. Like Judge Buckley, the other members of the panel were Reagan appointees too. (I don’t want to hear any talk about liberal activist judges!)
In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times said the federal tax rules are wise and urged the IRS to enforce the law if clergy go over the line during “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
“The restriction, which dates back to the 1950s, is based on a sound principle: that organizations characterizing themselves as charitable and receiving a government benefit should refrain from election activity,” the Times observed.
“For some religious conservatives, this policy isn't just unwise; it's unconstitutional,” the newspaper continued. “But tax exemption isn't a constitutional right. It's the creation of Congress, which has the right to attach conditions to that benefit. Put another way, churches may have a 1st Amendment right to comment on elections, but they don't have the right to a tax exemption.”
Concluded the Times, “With the 2012 election season already in progress, the IRS needs to remind the participants in ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ that the law will be enforced — in a measured and consistent way.”
All I can say to that is “Amen!”