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."
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.
This is religious speech, not political speech, because the pastors evaluate candidates in light of the Scripture, he says.
The prohibition against partisan activity by charitable groups was enacted by Congress in 1954, and the statute has been upheld in the courts. In three cases, courts have concluded it does not violate the Constitution's free speech clause, according to Robert Tuttle, professor of law and religion at George Washington University in Washington.
In a national poll released in August, two-thirds of American adults say that churches should not come out in favor of one political candidate over another. The Pew poll shows widespread agreement, including among Republicans and white Evangelicals (both at 64 percent).
Also, under the IRS rules, clergy are free to discuss any issues of public concern in their sermons, and houses of worship can engage in nonpartisan voter-registration and civic education.
Previous challenges failed
At various times, bills have been introduced in Congress attempting to change or repeal the rule limiting partisan activity – most recently in 2004 – but they have not passed.
"It is not accidental that the people who want the church to take on a political identity are the people who argue there's no separation of church and state in the Constitution and that there's been a misinterpretation of religious liberty all along," he says.
In response to the ADF's initiative, the IA launched a campaign to have clergy sign a six-point pledge to uphold standards of nonpartisanship during the election campaign. Several hundred of them have done so.
"As a minister, I want religion in this nation to have the credibility, integrity, and authority to be a force for reconciliation and healing, for bringing a divided nation together, not contributing to further divisiveness," Dr. Gaddy says.
If houses of worship became "bastions of political partisanship, that would be a blow to the positive power of religion."
Mr. Booth disagrees, saying that "absolutely" churches should be able to engage in political activity, since the Bible calls for taking the gospel into every aspect of life.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which mails letters to churches alerting them to the IRS rules and has reported alleged violators to the IRS, issued a warning that, "Taking part in this reckless stunt is a one-way ticket to loss of tax exemption."
The IRS says its first goal has always been education on the issue. It plans to "monitor the situation and take action as appropriate."