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To hear some people tell it, this Sunday is one of the most important days in the history of the American church. This is the day when the church pulpits of America will be freed from the bondage of the state. This is the day the church will finally be free!
Wait a minute. Isn’t the church in America free now? Isn’t “pulpit freedom” what our forbears demanded? Isn’t this freedom what permits the late Reverends Jerry Falwell (on the right) and William Sloane Coffin (on the left) to speak from the pulpit about the moral issues of the day no matter how many people disapproved of their comments? Isn’t this the “pulpit freedom” that inspired the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and thousands of other bold, and sometimes wildly controversial, preachers to speak what they considered “truth to power”?
Well, yes. However, a group called the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which raked in about $31 million last year, has decided that the pulpit is not free enough.
They oppose a law passed in 1954 that religious groups are prohibited by the Internal Revenue Code from using their resources–including preaching time on Saturday or Sunday–to “endorse or oppose candidates for public office.”
Dale Schowengerdt, an ADF attorney working on the project, told the L.A. Times: “The bottom line is that churches and pastors have a right to speak freely from the pulpit. They should not be intimidated into silence by unconstitutional IRS regulations or rules.”
In other words, the one “limitation” on receipt of a tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code–the very valuable privilege of a tax exemption–is to not turn your church into a political committee to help any candidate in a partisan fashion. This Sunday they want preachers to deliberately violate this prohibition.
To start this discussion, Jay, let me suggest three reasons why the Alliance Defense Fund ought to call off this stunt. We both know its director Alan Sears. Maybe we could offer to take him to church, lunch and a movie on Sunday instead of watching pastors at his direction preach sermons including pulpit endorsements and risk losing their tax exemptions?
First, they do not have the Constitution on their side. Indeed, a congregation called the Church at Pierce Creek did have its tax exemption yanked in 1995 for expending $44,000 in church receipts on a full page ad in USA Today demanding that the public not vote for Bill Clinton. They went to trial; they appealed to the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia and not one judge agreed they had a First Amendment case.
In other words, they lost and had to start a new church. Now, if churches were losing their exemptions every week and Christendom were threatened with extinction, the ADF might have a bit more credibility. In fact, the IRS does take its responsibility seriously and does investigate and sanction some churches when they cross the line. Frankly, I think they give too many churches “passes” they don’t deserve.
Second, most pastors want nothing to do with this scheme. A recent survey of evangelical leaders overwhelmingly showed that they do not want to endorse candidates in their official capacity nor divert collection plate receipts to their favored candidate. This deeply divides congregations when it occurs, and in one case from the last Presidential cycle, even caused a North Carolina congregation to fire its pastor.
And most Americans don’t want their churches to endorse political candidates, either. LifeWay Research conducted a poll asking whether “it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office.” Seventy-five percent said “no!”
Even more Americans (85 percent) disagreed with using church resources to campaign for candidates for public office.
Finally, were this law changed, it would create a giant loophole in campaign finance reform laws–allowing churches to collect money from anyone and then use it to influence voters. Local churches in some areas have great power. Mega-ministry television preachers like Pat Robertson have even greater power. Use it to discuss issues; not endorse candidates.