Sunday, September 28, 2008

Violating Federal Tax Law from the Pulpit

Earlier this morning, over thirty pastors planned to violate federal tax law by endorsing a presidential candidate while from the pulpit. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Jane Lampman reported last week, the pastors’ actions occurred on behalf of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), who proclaimed today as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The ADF—a legal organization associated with the Religious Right—argues that pastors have the right to endorse political candidates within church as part of religious free speech. This stance goes against IRS tax codes, which prohibit churches from becoming involved in partisan political activity. Violations can result in churches losing their tax-exempt status.

So what might be the ultimate significance of what the involved pastors and ADF are doing? Writing for Church Law and Tax Report a few years ago, Richard R. Hammar noted that despite what the codes say, many “flagrant violations” occur during election years that the IRS fails to punish. Moreover, Jeff Sharlet elaborates on a related source of confusion:

“Outraged? You probably should be—we're talking about the money machine of the Christian Right—but I'm guessing you aren't, because I barely understand what I've just written myself. Most people don't know that churches aren't allowed to talk politics. So news of a bid to stop a bid to overturn the ban requires the journalistic equivalent of explaining why a joke is funny. It's hard to get outraged over defiance of a law you didn't know existed.”

So while the story has picked up some steam in the last several days, it’s still difficult to tell if what’s happened—and the oppositional stance from mainstream media and religious leaders—will ultimately amount to much in the long-term.

Two things are clear, though. The first is that despite what the pastors and ADF may claim, they do not have the Constitution on their side. Lampman mentions that in three separate cases since 1954, courts have ruled that the IRS prohibition “does not violate the Constitution’s free speech clause.” Mark Silk also contends that Pulpit Freedom Sunday does not pose a constitutional issue, since the free exercise clause “has never been interpreted to include a right not to be taxed. The remedy for the grievance here is simply for ADF to try to get the law changed.”

Secondly, ADF intends for the title “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” to signify a courageous spiritual stance against government (read: secular, evil) forces of oppression. Yet as a Duluth pastor commented, the event is, in reality, “kind of foolish.”

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