It’s that time of year, again. On October 7, 2012, hundreds of Christian pastors are going to be taking to their pulpits with overtly political messages in an effort to challenge a restrictive Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) tax code. The calculated event, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” is an annual initiative that seeks to rally believers against the government’s regulations on pastoral political endorsements.
The situation, as TheBlaze has noted in the past, is a complicated one. While there are certainly political issues that preachers can discuss from the pulpit, churches’ tax-exempt status prevents faith leaders, at least in part, from partisan preaching. Thus, if a church wants to enjoy tax benefits, it must comply.
THE HISTORY OF THE CONTROVERSIAL IRS CODE
Many pastors claim that the co-called “Johnson Amendment,” an IRS code that was added in 1954, causes such fear among some clergy that they end up erring on the side of not addressing controversial social and political issues (read a complete history of the controversial amendment here).
The notion is that this angst about violating the law has led to a decline in church members’ education on important issues of the day. For the past 60 years, the Johnson Amendment has governed how charities and churches — 501(c)(3) organizations — can handle political partisanship.
The code explicitly prohibits non-profit organizations from engaging in campaign activity. Rather than declining in prevalence over time, this regulation has actually been strengthened. The last change was made to it back in 1987, when the amendment’s language was tightened to clarify that the restrictions should also cover statements and stances that rail against candidates (previously it was interpreted to only stand for statements that supported specific candidates).
The IRS describes a 501(c)(3) group as one, “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The IRS web site goes on to designate which sorts of activities are permitted and which are banned under current regulations:
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.
Any violation of the aforementioned tenets could lead a church or non-profit to lose its tax-exempt status.
THE PULPIT FREEDOM SUNDAY INITIATIVE
In an effort to combat what many preachers believe to be a free-speech violation, they will engage in The Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative. A description of the event explains, in detail, why the event was launched and what it intends to accomplish:
Alliance Defending Freedom began Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008. The goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is simple: have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional – and once and for all remove the ability of the IRS to censor what a pastor says from the pulpit.
Alliance Defending Freedom is actively seeking to represent churches or pastors who are under investigation by the IRS for violating the Johnson Amendment by preaching biblical Truth in a way that expresses support for – or opposition to – political candidates. Alliance Defending Freedom represents all of its clients free of charge.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday is not about turning churches into political machines; it is about restoring the right of pastors to speak freely from their pulpits about all matters included in Scripture – even when Scripture is deeply relevant to a pending election or the quality of a candidate for office.
“The purpose is to make sure that the pastor — and not the IRS — decides what is said from the pulpit,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for ADF, said in an interview with Fox News. “It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”
The event essentially encourages hundreds of pastors to take to their pulpits on October 7, 2012 to preach sermons that compare the positions held by presidential candidates (and local and state contenders) to what Biblical scriptures say about issues. While the overall theme is the same, those leaders participating control their own messaging, as sermons are not mandated by the ADF.
“A Pulpit Freedom Sunday sermon explores what Scripture says about the selection of our national, state, or local leaders and applies Scripture and/or church doctrine to candidates and the issues held by the candidates such as life, marriage, and family,” explains a tip sheet that is published on the initiative’s web site.
COMPLAINTS AGAINST CHURCHES
In the past, following sermons, participating pastors have sent audio and video versions of their politically-driven messages to the IRS. While this may seem counterproductive and inciting, one of the central goals of the Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to see the Johnson Amendment ruled unconstitutional.
So far, the IRS has yet to go after any of the churches who have submitted political sermons. That being said, the hope is that making the government aware of church code violations will spark an audit. Then, the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment can be hashed out once and for all, with the ADF actively seeking churches that it can represent in this potential court battle.
While those groups participating in the Pulpit Freedom Sunday have not been cited by the IRS, the government has, indeed, investigated charities, including churches, for election year activity in the past. While investigations do unfold, the IRS very rarely revokes 501(c)(3) statuses. Here’s some information from the tax authority’s 2006 election report, which provides a lens into the complaint process:
In 2006, the IRS received 237 referrals alleging prohibited political campaign intervention by section 501(c)(3) organizations, as compared to 166 in 2004. Although the number of referrals received in 2006 exceeded those filed in 2004 by 81, the number of referrals actually selected for examination in 2006 was less than the number selected in 2004.
In our view, the IRS public awareness program contributed to the rise in the number of referrals we received; whereas, the experience we gained through the 2004 PACI resulted in fewer 2006 referrals selected for examination.
In both 2004 and 2006, referrals alleging violations by churches and nonchurches were almost evenly split, as were the referrals ultimately selected for examination.
When it comes to complaints about violations, groups like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) are active in waging them. In fact, in a press release put out in late August, the organization called for an official IRS investigation of the Missouri Baptist Convention over the alleged endorsement of two political candidates.
“Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a complaint with the IRS about the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) for intervening in the Missouri Republican primary on behalf of candidates for state and federal offices,” the release read.
However, these complaints never solidify into anything major, thus leaving the Johnson Amendment in place and continuing what some pastors, like Jim Garlow, who is active in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, call an unfair situation for houses of worship.
“The IRS will send out notices from time to time and say you crossed the line,” explained Garlow, a pastor at San Diego’s Skyline Wesleyan Church. “But when it’s time to go to court, they close the case.”
The Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative is hoping to change this dynamic. This is the fifth year that the effort has unfolded. During its inception in 2008, 33 pastors from 22 states took part. This number jumped to 80 in 2009 and to 100 in 2010. Last year, after a monumental surge in participation, 539 pastors took part in the initiative.
While pastors contend that the IRS’s regulations constrain free speech, groups like AUSCS claim that this is a move to turn churches into right-wing voting machines. Last year, the group’s communications director, Joseph Conn, said that the effort is merely being undertaken “to forge fundamentalist churches into a disciplined voting bloc.”
What do you think? Should churches have the right to unfettered speech, even partisan discussion, from the pulpit? And should they be able to endorse candidates? Take our poll, below: