May 21, 2009

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="247" caption="The Rev. Barry W. Lynn"][/caption]

Sometimes, a good, old-fashioned debate is the best way to hash out a contentious public issue.

I attended an event like this yesterday at the National Press Club here in Washington, where Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn participated in spirited (but polite) verbal bout over pulpit politicking.

The event was put on by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group, and the Federalist Society. It brought together, for at least one afternoon, nearly 100 people from both sides of the political spectrum.

Participants focused on a provision in federal tax law that prohibits tax-exempt, non-profit organizations – including religious institutions – from endorsing or opposing candidates. As you may recall, back in September, the ADF urged clergy around the country to openly violate this law as part of a scheme they called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday."

As we sat down to lunch, I found myself next to Pastor Steve Hickey of Church at the Gate in Sioux Falls, S.D.     We made pleasant small talk, and I learned that Hickey is active with the ADF.

I'm not sure whether Pastor Hickey participated in ADF's stunt, but I have to say I was glad he was in attendance. I was hopeful that once he listened to Barry's convincing arguments, he'd understand why the ADF was off base.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="ADF Chief Counsel Benjamin Bull"][/caption]

Sitting on the panel along with Lynn was Donald Tobin, my former tax law and legal writing professor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Tobin provided the tax-scholar angle to the issue, while Barry, who is an ordained Christian minister, gave a religious leader's perspective.

On the other side were ADF Chief Counsel Benjamin W. Bull and University of Michigan Law School professor Douglas Laycock. They argued that the Internal Revenue Service regulation violates free speech rights by prohibiting pastors' free-speech rights in the pulpit.

Lynn and Tobin took issue with this, asserting that the IRS law is the only way to ensure that churches do not become enmeshed in political machines. And, as Lynn pointed out, clergy still have an astounding amount of freedom to preach. Under the tax law, they may discuss moral issues of the day, such as abortion or gay rights; they just cannot specifically support or oppose one candidate, nor can they raise money in any way for political campaigns.

Tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, Lynn said. In taking this benefit from the government, churches, temples and synagogues must play by the same rules as all other non-profit organizations, otherwise they would be given special rights other non-profit groups do not receive.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="297" caption="The Panel"][/caption]

Tobin added that if churches want to jump into partisan political races, they don't have to accept the privilege of a tax exemption. But if a church wants the benefit of this tax exemption, he continued, the government has the right to add certain conditions to ensure the privilege is not being abused.

Lynn reminded the audience that most Americans go to church to receive spiritual guidance. They don't want to hear hardball political endorsements. In fact, 87 percent of Americans agreed that pastors should not endorse candidates during worship services, according to a survey conducted by LifeWay Research.

In responding to Lynn's arguments, Bull claimed the language of the IRS provision was too vague. He said it is unfair to ask pastors to understand what constitutes a violation and what doesn't.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The Rev. Gus Booth"][/caption]

But Lynn had some advice for the many pastors sitting in the audience, including the Rev. Gus Booth of Warroad, Minn., who Americans United reported to the IRS after the pastor told his congregation not to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Lynn suggested pastors ask themselves before giving a sermon whether their intent is to endorse or oppose a candidate, and if they find the answer is "yes," they should not continue. It's as simple as that.

Normally I'd be reluctant to spend an afternoon hanging out with members of the Alliance Defense Fund and the Federalist Society, but in this case I thought it was worth it. The debate was educational and informative, and it was great to see Lynn and Tobin make some winning arguments.

As Pastor Hickey wished me goodbye and good luck at the end of lunch, he said he enjoyed the event because it allowed him to "humanize" the issue. I'd like to believe that means he doesn't think we're so bad after all.

I hope he even learned a thing or two about why pulpit politicking is a bad idea.