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Sept. 28: Politically Religious Day

Or maybe it's Religiously Political Day.

Whatever you want to call it, you might want to go ahead and mark that last Sunday in September on your calendar. It could be an interesting one, from spiritual, political and tax standpoints.

First_methodist_church_interior_2 On that day, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative legal group, plans to have 50 pastors endorse candidates from their pulpits.

The goal, according to the New York Times' political blog The Caucus, is to provoke a legal challenge to the tax law that prohibits religious organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

The ADF, in its press release about the "new initiative to reclaim pastors’ First Amendment rights" says it will challenge "the tactics of groups that use the Internal Revenue Service to intimidate churches and pastors into silence on important issues of the day."

"The government can’t demand that a church give up its right to tax-exempt status simply because the pastor exercises his First Amendment rights in the pulpit," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, in the announcement about what has been dubbed The Pulpit Initiative

Stanley told The Caucus that hundreds of pastors want to participate, but ADF will narrow it down to those who are "prepared to suffer any consequences."

Their sermons and political recommendations will be taped and sent to the IRS. When an investigation is opened, the ADF plans to sue the agency for inhibiting free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The IRS disagrees: The IRS, however, thinks it's standing on pretty firm no-political-preaching ground. The agency has been aggressively going after ministers who take the ADF stance.

One of the most high-profile instances is the case of Florida televangelist Bill Keller, who last year declared that, "If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!" You can read more about the Keller case in the blog item.

Church_and_state_sign In support of its efforts to keep church and state apart, the IRS' special Web page Charities, Churches and Politics provides information on the political campaign activity ban and statistics on the enforcement of the prohibition.

And the agency's Political Campaign Intervention has links to materials addressing federal tax rules that apply to political campaigns and tax-exempt groups.

No reciprocal ban: There's no prohibition, though, on candidates discussing religious issues. And a religiously-tinged speech that Barack Obama gave in 2006 is now coming under fire, not from the IRS, but from a conservative Christian group.

Evangelical leader James Dobson, whom Obama referenced in the speech two years ago, now accuses the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate of "deliberately distorting" the Bible.

Obama defended the speech, saying it "affirms the role of faith, not just in my life, but in the life of the American people, [and] that suggests that we make a mistake by trying to push faith out of the public square."

Decide for yourself. Click here to read what Obama said in June 2006 to the liberal Christian group Call to Renewal .

And expect religion to continue to be a hot political topic. Both Obama and GOP candidate John McCain are wooing evangelicals, as polls show that demographic is up for grabs in November.

Another LBJ legacy: In surfing through the various politics and tax-exempts material, I learned an interesting tidbit about the law's origin.

Although Texas is part of the Bible Belt, it was a Lone Star State lawmaker who initiated today's political preaching parameters.

In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson offered an amendment to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in any political campaign activity.

Over the years, the law has been strengthened, with the most recent change being in 1987 when Congress clarified that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.


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