| September 19, 2008
"Pulpit Freedom Sunday"
by Mike McManus
On September 28, "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," many courageous pastors across
the country will preach from a Biblical perspective on why they think
their congregations should vote for or against specific candidates
running for office.
Why is this courageous?
First, they risk losing their tax exempt status with the IRS. Americans
United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group in
Washington which monitors church political activity, said it will notify
the IRS of any church taking a stand on political candidates.
Second, they risk criticism from church members who believe in the
separation of church and state which would prohibit any specific
political endorsements from the pulpit.
It was not always this way. Historically, churches have frequently and
fervently spoken for and against candidates. Thomas Jefferson was
opposed for President as a deist. Northern clergy supported Abraham
Lincoln's election, while southern pastors opposed him. William Howard
Taft was opposed as a Unitarian. Sermons against Al Smith as a Catholic
helped defeat him for President.
After all, the Constitution's First Amendment guarantees freedom of
speech and of religion. Why should clergy be excluded?
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) has launched a "Pulpit Initiative" to
reclaim the right of "each pastor to speak Scriptural truth from the
pulpit about moral, social and governmental issues without fear of
losing his church's tax exempt status."
ADF has a staff of 125 attorneys who have pledged to offer the clergy
free legal assistance to fight the IRS and Americans United. "We want
to restore the right of pastors not to be intimidated," said ADF's Erik
The IRS has placed a cloud of intimidation over the church, making
pastors fearful of losing their tax-exempt status. The IRS states that
churches "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly
participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on on behalf
(or in opposition of) any candidate for public office."
This stance is based upon a 1954 amendment to the law offered by
then-Senator Lyndon Johnson which stated that non-profit tax-exempt
entities could not "participate in, or intervene in (including the
publishing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any
candidate for public office."
The law was passed by Congress without debate, though it reversed
centuries of freedom of speech practiced by clergy. No official reason
was given for the amendment, but scholars believe Johnson wanted to
restrict the speech of a private group that supported a political
opponent. As the Majority Leader of the Senate, Johnson had the power to
insert the amendment
It has silenced two generations of clergy. However, it is important to
point out that the IRS has NEVER punished a pastor for the content of
his pulpit sermon, according to ADF.
"To date, there is no reported situation where a church has lost its tax
exempt status or been directly punished for sermons delivered from the
pulpit," states an ADF Pulpit Initiative White Paper.
Why? Perhaps the IRS knows it would lose its battle in court. The 1954
amendment violates the First Amendment to the Constitution which states
plainly: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion." If the government meddles with internal church affairs,
courts will strike it down as unconstitutional.
Secondly, as a practical matter, only "income"can be taxed by the IRS,
but all donations to the church are "gifts" which are not considered
income by the tax code.
In fact, the IRS recently investigated the tax exempt status of All
Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena over a sermon delivered by a guest
speaker who asserted that Jesus Christ would not vote for President Bush
because of the Iraq War. After the church refused to cooperate with the
IRS, the IRS closed its examination without penalizing the church.
How will ADF's Pulpit Initiative work?
Participating churches will exercise their constitutional right to
preach on September 28 to evaluate current candidates for office based
on Scripture or church teaching and will make specific recommendations
based on that evaluation. If the IRS responds by investigating the
church, it may join others in a lawsuit against the IRS in federal
court. ADF will represent the churches for free, and will argue that
the IRS restrictions violates the U.S. Constitution.
Lyndon Johnson created a boogeyman which has improperly frightened and
successfully intimidated churches to be silent.
The ADL Pulpit Initiative is welcome and long overdue.
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