Pulpit politics: Pastors to defy IRS
Some plan to endorse a candidate Sunday, challenging federal rules that limit partisan activity by tax-exempt groups.
During sermons this Sunday, some 35 pastors across the country will tell their congregations which presidential candidate they should vote for, "according to the Scriptures."Skip to next paragraph
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Their endorsements represent a direct challenge to federal tax law, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from engaging in partisan political activity.
The clergy have embraced that risk, hoping their actions will trigger an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, which would then enable a Christian legal advocacy group to take the IRS to court and challenge the constitutionality of the ban.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative legal group based in Arizona, recruited the pastors for "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" to press their claim that the IRS tax code violates the free speech of religious leaders.
"I have a First Amendment right to say whatever I want to say, and I've never thought it was appropriate that as a pastor I could not share my political concerns with the congregation," says the Rev. Gus Booth, pastor at Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn.
Mixing religion and politics
For other clergy – and legal experts – this is not a question of free speech, but an act contrary to the law that could also be dangerous for religion, potentially dividing and politicizing congregations.
"This is not a free speech issue," says the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. "Any person, including a pastor, can endorse a candidate as a private individual. And if a church wants to do it, it can give up its tax-exempt status."
He and another Ohio pastor held a press conference Sept. 8 inviting clergy to preach against such partisan activity, and more than 100 pastors in several states did so on Sept. 21, says Mr. Williams.
The Ohio pastors also sent a complaint to the IRS requesting an investigation of the ADF and whether its initiative violated its charity status. They had the support of three former IRS officials who criticized the ADF for encouraging clergy to violate the law by endorsing political candidates.
According to the ADF, this is not about endorsing candidates, but about protecting religious expression and about who regulates what is said from the pulpit.
"We believe the decision about whether to address candidates should rest with the pastor and congregation, not the government," says Erik Stanley, the ADF's senior legal counsel.