Tax-Exempt Churches Plan to Engage in Illegal Electioneering
Monday, June 25, 2012
Alan Sears, President and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund
On October 7, 2012, hundreds of conservative political activists will intentionally violate federal law by engaging in illegal electioneering despite the presence of a law on the books since 1954 that forbids them to do so. They believe, apparently correctly, that the mere fact that they are religious clerics will prevent them from being prosecuted, despite the fact that they intend to provide the government with documentary evidence of their law breaking.
Welcome to “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a political movement first organized in 2008 by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund to oppose the candidacy of Barack Obama. Federal and state laws have long exempted charitable organizations, including churches, temples, mosques, etc., from taxation, which adds up to about a $25 billion government subsidy for churches each year. In exchange, charities are prohibited from participating in political campaigns either for or against candidates for public office, although they may advocate positions on public issues. In 2008, 33 pastors participated by urging their congregants from the pulpit to vote against Obama; by 2011 the number participating had grown to 539, and organizers hope to break 1,000 this election year.
Each year, the pastors flood the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with audio and video recordings of their unlawful endorsements, yet the IRS has taken virtually no action. The IRS enforced the law under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but not since losing, on technical grounds, an action in 2007 against an evangelical Christian church whose minister endorsed Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota). Ironically, since Obama’s election the IRS has not attempted to enforce the law, despite the pastors’ dire predictions that his administration would be anti-religion.
Although the pastors participating contend that theirs is a constitutional issue involving both their free exercise of religion and their free speech rights, other religious leaders argue that the issue is really about money, and that if some pastors feel they must politic from the pulpit they should play by the rules and give up their tax exemptions. As it happens, such politicking may be almost entirely ineffective. A January 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 18% said the endorsement of a candidate by their minister, priest or rabbi would sway their vote, while 70% said it would make no difference.
To Learn More:
As Churches Get Political, IRS Stays Quiet (by Nanette Byrnes, Reuters)
Against “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” (Unless Churches Pay Their Taxes First!) (by Rev. Dr. J. Carl Gregg, Patheos)
Pastors Defy Law to Preach Politics (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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