Religious Right Organization Misleads Clergy On Church-Based Politicking, Says AU

Watchdog Group Urges Pastors To Refrain From Using Tax-Exempt Church Resources To Endorse Or Oppose Candidates

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged religious leaders to steer clear of bad advice from a Religious Right legal group that seeks to politicize America’s pulpits.

The Alliance Defense Fund has announced that Sept. 27 will be “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” during which evangelical Christian pastors are asked to endorse or oppose candidates for public office in violation of federal tax law.

“It’s reckless and irresponsible for any organization to urge houses of worship to knowingly violate our nation’s tax laws,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Smart pastors know to keep far away from this misguided and partisan initiative.”

In 2008, more than 30 churches took part in the ADF scheme, with all of them either endorsing Republican John McCain or advising votes against Democrat Barack Obama. Americans United reported eight of them to the Internal Revenue Service.

Federal tax law bars the use of tax-exempt resources by churches and other non-profits to support or oppose candidates. It does not, however, restrict comment on public issues.

This year, the ADF claims that more than 80 pastors are taking part in the scheme. A press release from the organization says that some of the pastors “will address the positions of candidates in current state governor’s races.” (New Jersey and Virginia have gubernatorial contests, and other states have local elections.)

But the ADF also says other participating clergy will “speak about biblical truths” and “address the positions of existing government officials….” Neither of those activities would run afoul of federal tax law.

“It’s time to turn off the ADF’s fog machine,” Lynn said. “This isn’t about the right to preach the Bible or talk about issues in the pulpit. It’s about the ADF’s crusade to turn houses of worship into a partisan political machine to help elect Republicans.”

Lynn noted that polls have consistently shown that the American people overwhelmingly oppose pulpit politicking. According to a survey taken last year by LifeWay Research, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, 75 percent of Americans do not believe “it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office.”

In addition, 85 percent think it is not “appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates for public office.” Eighty-seven percent do not “believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service.”

The ADF, a group founded by TV preachers and other right-wing leaders, has been strongly criticized for this gambit. Lynn noted that in October of 2008, clergy in Ohio asked the IRS to investigate the ADF, arguing that the group ran afoul of professional ethical standards established for tax attorneys by advising religious leaders to violate the law. 

Lynn said Americans United will monitor this year’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” and report any churches that flagrantly violate the law to the IRS. 

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.