For members of some churches this Sunday, their church is no sanctuary from politics.
A group of ministers, around 35 at last count, will tell their congregations to vote for either Barack Obama or John McCain. This so-called Pulpit Freedom Sunday message is a direct challenge to the tax law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from participating in overtly political activities.
It also might not be as welcome as the clergy might think, according to a recent poll on combining religion and politics. More on this survey in a bit.
Free speech or tax free? The tax law at issue was added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1954 as a way to keep nonprofits from funneling money and resources to political candidates.
Under the statute, the IRS can revoke the tax exempt status of churches (and other 501(c)(3) organizations) that express support or opposition to candidates for public office.
The ministers, however, say the law violates their First Amendment right of free speech.
As blogged back in June, today's Pulpit Freedom Sunday is the brainchild of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative legal group that wants to provoke a legal challenge to the no-church-politicking law.
'Appropriate' action expected: The IRS says that it is aware of Pulpit Freedom Sunday and "will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate." The ADF, however, might not get precisely what it wants.
Some tax law experts say that it is more likely that the organizing group and its lawyers, not today's participating ministers, will face legal sanctions. The clergy probably will get off with IRS warnings to avoid politicking in the future.
Keep 'em separated: Regardless of what happens on the tax front, the ADF has achieved at least one goal: publicity. And while some ministers sincerely believe that political as well as religious guidance is part of their mission, many other folks no doubt agree with Sensen No Sen, who sees today's pulpit politics as More Cynical Manipulation of Religious Voters.
I'm trying not to be too cynical. Yeah, I know; call me crazy. But even if the Constitutional motive is genuine, I think the ADF is wrong.
Everyone is entitled to individual spiritual and political opinions. But our country's founders were correct in calling for the separation of church and state. That means if you're counting on religious status to get out of paying taxes, then you've got a choice to make. Zip it when you're in your official tax-free pulpit or pay up and promote your point of view by whatever method you please.
You can read more about Pulpit Freedom Sunday in:
- Preaching Politics, Los Angeles Times
- I'm Your Pastor and I Approved This Ad, New York Times
- Should politics be preached from a pulpit?, Boston.com
- Pastors to Defy IRS, Christian Science Monitor
- Pulpit not the place for endorsements, Nashua, NH, Telegraph
- Politically active on your church website? Kiss your tax exemption goodbye, Heal Your Church Website
- Pulpit Freedom Sunday, Mike's Show Notes
And read more on IRS efforts to educate tax-exempt groups about tax law in IRS issues word on churches & politics.
Pulpit politics not that popular: The ADF might want to check out the numbers from a poll conducted this summer by LifeWay Research, a part of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"There is a longstanding and publicly affirmed view that the pulpit is not the place for politics, particularly endorsements," said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research. "It would appear this view is still widely held in most sectors of society."
LifeWay Research's telephone poll conducted in June found that most Americans believe churches should not campaign for or endorse political candidates and pastors should only endorse candidates as private citizens outside of a church service.
When asked for their level of
agreement with the statement, "I believe it is appropriate for churches
to publicly endorse candidates for public office,"
As for using church resources,
What about the tax status issue? When the topic turned to whether churches that publicly endorse candidates should lose their tax-exempt status, a slim majority agreed with current tax law.
Thirty-eight percent strongly
You can find more results from the LifeWay Research survey here.