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Pastors to talk politics today in defiance of IRS tax-exemption rules

Earlier today, nearly 100 pastors spoke to their congregations about political issues. The special sermons were part of this year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

FIRST METHODIST CHURCH INTERIOR (2) Like the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday in  2008, also a general election year, the ministers are defying tax laws that say tax-exempt organizations cannot support politicians and keep their tax-advantaged status.

The ministers, egged on encouraged by the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based nonprofit Alliance Defense Fund, say they are just exercising their right to free speech.

Yes, reverends, you, like every other American, can say pretty much what you want. But if your group is getting a tax break, meaning the rest of us cover in taxes what you don't pay, and you then use that tax-free forum to exercise your political free speech, then get ready to relinquish your tax exemption.

Or as Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, so nicely put it:  "Tax exemption is not a right; it's a privilege that comes with certain restrictions."

Long-standing law, few actions: The restrictions that apply are from a law enacted in 1954 and revised in 1987 that prohibits churches and tax-exempt entities from endorsing or opposing political candidates. 

And the IRS says it will be watching this Sunday. "We are aware of recent press reports," said IRS spokesman Robert Marvin, "and will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate."

It's not that I don't believe Mr. Marvin, but let's just say I'm skeptical as to whether today's tax-law-violating preaching will actually result in any official actions.

The IRS gets reports of such violations all the time. As far as I can tell, in reality few groups see their tax-exempt status yanked.

Maybe there's not enough proof for the IRS to take action. The preachers -- or other  nonprofits that are active politically in alleged violation of the law -- might be walking a fine tax-law line and technically don't violate the statute. They are allowed to take actions that are deemed educational in nature.

Perhaps the IRS just doesn't have enough people to check out all the complaints, at least not immediately. We might see some alleged violations validated in a few months or so.

Or maybe the IRS just doesn't want to deal with the political firestorm of whacking a church. In these polarized times, there's a better than average chance that the religious group's Representative and Senators would quickly be in the IRS' business.

So don't expect much to happen after congregants leave their Pulpit Freedom Sunday churches today.

In fact, when 33 pastors participated in the first such event two years ago, only one church was investigated by the IRS.

That was after all the preachers recorded their sermons and sent them to the IRS. And that lone audit was eventually dropped.

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Why don't they crack down on all the black preachers who talk politics and even invite politicians to speak to their congregations?

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