In America, tax-exempt organizations like churches are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office, according to I.R.S. guidelines. This prohibition is quite specific. According to the I.R.S., distributing statements prepared by others that favor or oppose any candidate for public office is prohibited. The penalty is loss of tax exempt status.
Nobody should hesitate to defend the right of religious figures to stand in their holy places (e.g., pulpits) to urge their “flocks” to vote for or against candidates they favor or oppose. Members of congregations may not like it, but that’s their business. They can reward or punish the preachers as they wish. Freedom of speech is there for everyone.
However, taxpayers must not be expected to fund directly or indirectly the political campaigns of religious or other non-profit organizations that are expressly forbidden by I.R.S. guidelines from political campaigning, as noted above.
A couple weeks ago, the New York Times published a story about the contents of a bulletin at a Catholic church in Manhattan. The bulletin contained a letter written by six former ambassadors to the Vatican making the case for Mitt Romney for president. All approved of Romney’s opposition to abortion, marriage rights for same-sex couples and the parts of the Affordable Health Care Act that Catholic bishops opposed concerning coverage for contraceptives. It concluded with this endorsement: We urge our fellow Catholics, and indeed all people of good will to join with us in this full-hearted effort to elect Gov. Mitt Romney as the next President of the United States. (Source: Jim Dwyer, “Priest’s Dip Into Politics Raises Outcry,” New York Times, September 18, 2012).
Calls to violate the I.R.S. code are endemic this election cycle among Christian conservatives. Consider the recent Value Voters Summit (voters without values not welcome). At this gathering, Republicans were urged to ignore the law and violate the tax code because God wants you to vote for Mitt Romney. One enthusiast suggested, God himself would vote for Romney, if he were a registered voter. (Shame on God for not registering.)
The values crowd included the holiest of holy evangelical cultural warriors. Speakers included Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, Bob McDonald and Michelle Bachmann. (Romney made an appearance by video; notably absent were Todd Akin and Rick Perry) Several speakers called for pastors to use their pulpits to promote the Republican ticket; workshops were devoted to how to do so most effectively.
The Republican drive to enlist clergy in the Romney/Ryan campaign was fully explored in a September 23, 2012 article by Eric W. Dolan entitled, More than 1,000 pastors plan to challenge IRS by endorsing presidential candidate. This essay can be found at The Raw Story website.
It seems that the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Right-wing Christian group, has a campaign underway to challenge the I.R.S.’s right to withdraw tax exemption if clergy proselytize from the pulpit or otherwise as part of their church’s ministry (e.g., church booklets distributed at masses). They even have a name for the law-breaking effort which sounds patriotic – Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
Naturally, the effort is thick with misrepresentations, like this statement during a Fox News interview by Erik Stanley, the group’s senior legal counsel explaining the purpose of Pulpit Freedom Sunday: It’s a head-on constitutional challenge to make sure that the pastor — and not the IRS — decides what is said from the pulpit.
Maybe you were not aware that the I.R.S. has been focused on writing sermons and otherwise deciding what ministers, priests and ayatollahs preach from their pulpits.
This campaign by the Republicans and their evangelical allies could be a godsend, of sorts. It will require the I.R.S. to act or secular groups will go to court. Of course, that always involves grave risks of unintended consequences. One such consequence, given the current court dominance by conservative Catholics, would be dreadful judicial law that renders the 50-year prohibition unconstitutional. However, this is a risk church/state separation advocates must take. It’s the only way to ward off or slow the country’s descent into theocracy.
Let’s hope the pastors on the Right take up this awful call and defy the I.R.S. and that all the organization’s so represented lose their exemptions. The dissent that will follow within religious congregations will encourage church/state soul-searching. That could be one good thing to come from this grossly inappropriate incursion of religion into public affairs. The other might be removal from tax exemption organizations that have for too long failed to pay their fair share for public services rendered.
I like what Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United said about the Pulpit Freedom charade: People don’t join churches because they want to be told how to vote…Most clergy of all faiths know it’s inappropriate to use their pulpits to stump for political candidates. But there are very vocal misguided religious and political forces that constantly prod religious leaders to violate federal tax law. We urge clergy to just say no.
I think it would be fine if the flock rose up and did indeed say no to clergy involvement in Right-wing or any other politics, but I’m willing to take my chances should they do what Republicans are asking. Why? Because I want an end to the exemption of churches from taxation. This extremist initiative could be the start of something big – and beneficial.