Sunday was my 30th birthday, and the Religious Right got me a pretty rotten gift – the latest installment of the so-called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
As you may recall, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” was created in 2008 by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based Religious Right legal outfit founded by right-wing radio and television preachers. The ADF says it has encouraged pastors to give sermons “that present biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates.”
But what the ADF really wants is for at least some of those participating pastors to endorse or oppose a candidate for public office in violation of the Internal Revenue Code prohibition against political intervention by 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. Churches, like other nonprofits (including Americans United), may not use their financial resources or personnel to take sides in partisan campaigns.
The ADF hopes a church will lose its tax exemption, which would offer an opportunity to challenge the church electioneering prohibition in court. The problem for the ADF, however, is that federal courts have already upheld the tax code’s prohibition against campaign intervention, and the IRS has been almost totally silent on this issue for years.
So what is a proactive Religious Right group to do? It seems the ADF is now encouraging churches to rally around issues rather than candidates, as was the case on June 9. On one of its resource websites, the ADF asked clergy to “join thousands of your fellow pastors by preaching biblical Truth about God’s design for marriage.”
That’s all perfectly fine as far as the IRS is concerned. No house of worship has ever been barred from discussing social or political issues, so nothing that happened on Sunday defied the tax code as long as candidates were not endorsed.
That’s an inconvenient truth for the ADF, which not only wants to fight marriage equality, it also wants to confuse the public about what religious organizations can do in the political arena. The ADF would like you to think that pastors are being completely “muzzled” by the tax code, so it’s pretending that clergy are somehow taking a brave stand by speaking against gay marriage. There’s nothing brave about it – no one risked his church’s tax exemption by discussing marriage issues last weekend, and that’s all there is to it.
Unfortunately some people have been misled by this latest ADF stunt, which surely sought to capitalize on the ongoing IRS scandal in which some organizations seeking tax exemption under Section 501(c)(4) were targeted for Tea Party or other conservative affiliations.
As it turns out, even that scandal is somewhat overblown. According to Martin A. Sullivan of Tax Analysts, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which is responsible for IRS oversight, found that 82 percent of organizations with “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” or “9/12 Project” in their names that were audited between May 2010 and May 2012 “had indicators of significant political campaign activity in their application files.” Therefore, the Inspector General said, these groups “would have been properly selected for additional scrutiny” even if the IRS had been using activities-based criteria rather than going off of names or policies. (Full disclosure: I used to write for Tax Analysts).
We have been asking the IRS to step up and investigate churches that violate federal tax law, as many certainly have done. But this latest installment of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is nothing more than a distraction. It has nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do with the ADF’s agenda.
I hope that the public can see through this latest ADF ploy and that others will continue to put pressure on the IRS to enforce the prohibition against real church politicking.