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September 19, 2008
Column #1,411
"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 Stanley.

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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