On Sunday October 7th, Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative evangelical Christian group, will be promoting ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. It’s an event where the ADF says it has 1,000 pastors pledged to violate Federal tax laws by preaching about the election, endorsing a candidate, and sending a video of their sermon to the IRS. Their stated point is that the tax law prohibiting endorsing specific candidates violates the pastor’s freedom of speech. Once again the religious right is wrong.
More than 1,000 pastors are planning to challenge the IRS next month by deliberately preaching politics ahead of the presidential election despite a federal ban on endorsements from the pulpit.
The defiant move, they hope, will prompt the IRS to enforce a 1954 tax code amendment that prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from making political endorsements. Alliance Defending Freedom, which is holding the October summit, said it wants the IRS to press the matter so it can be decided in court. The group believes the law violates the First Amendment by “muzzling” preachers.
“The purpose is to make sure that the pastor — and not the IRS — decides what is said from the pulpit,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, told FoxNews.com. “It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”
Of course ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday‘ is an attempt to challenge the law so conservative evangelical Christians can do what they’ve been doing without fear of losing their tax payer subsidies.
However the law doesn’t violate the pastor’s free speech rights and the IRS rarely enforces that provision of the law against a church.
As IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson (a President Bush appointee by the way) noted in a speech in 2006:
In 1954, Congress saw the need to separate charities and churches from politics. An amendment was offered on the floor of the Senate by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson.
The Johnson amendment is found within the well-known section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. In its present form, the law states that charities, including churches, are not allowed to “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy. But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, “Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.”
The rule against intervention by charities and churches in political campaigns has been entrenched in the law for over a half-century. Congress enacted the law. The Courts upheld it. Our job at the IRS is to educate the public and charities about the law and to enforce it in a fair and evenhanded manner.
But I also loved Rev. Barry W. Lynn’s (Executive Director of Americans United For Separation Of Church And State) comment:
“People don’t join churches because they want to be told how to vote. Our letter reminds religious leaders about what the law requires, why it makes sense and how it could affect them.”
Pastors and other religious people are free to say anything they want from the pulpit but we don’t have to subsidize their speech especially if they are going to use their sermon time to tell people how they should vote.