Introductions are hard. I never know exactly what to share about myself upfront, so I’ll do my best to stick with the essentials. My name is Simon Brown, and I am the new communications associate at Americans United. I may be new to AU, but I’ve reported extensively on church electioneering for Tax Notes (it was my first story for that publication), so it’s fitting that my first blog post here is on this issue.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) sponsored its fourth edition of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on Oct. 2. According to the ADF, more than 475 pastors in 46 states and Puerto Rico gave sermons “that present biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates.”
That seems benign enough, but the ADF really wants 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 organizations described in section 501(c)(3). This provision of the code was established in 1954 by an amendment introduced by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson as a reaction to non-profits that attacked him during a tight race for his Senate seat. Today, it serves as an important factor in preventing the politicization of tax-exempt houses of worship.
The ADF hates the Johnson Amendment and hopes Pulpit Freedom Sunday will goad the IRS into fining a church or even revoking the tax exemption of one, thus setting up a legal challenge in which the ADF would try to overturn the law on free-speech grounds.
It remains to be seen what action, if any, the IRS will take. One official, however, said that churches are being examined, which is a departure from protocol for the usually silent Service.
“We have churches under audit,” Sarah Hall Ingram, commissioner of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt entities, told The New York Times recently.
Regardless of what the IRS decides, this ADF stunt is misguided. The ADF claims that nearly 90 percent of Protestant pastors “believe that the government should not regulate their sermons,” but that was a loaded question. What’s more germane is what pastors actually do in the pulpit. As The Christian Science Monitor pointed out in a recent editorial, “most religious groups do not endorse candidates – many of their followers would heartily protest.”
Aside from the ADF’s false claim of heavy support for Pulpit Freedom Sunday, it’s unclear just how many churches actually violated the tax code on Oct. 2. The ADF has led some to believe that pastors can’t discuss political issues from the pulpit at all, which is just plain false. At least one Maryland pastor exemplified that confusion when he attacked Gov. Martin O’Malley on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” which wasn’t a violation because O’Malley is a lame duck.
Simply put, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is not about biblical interpretation of political issues nor is it about defending pastors from an oppressive government gag. It is about creating a solid voting bloc among the Religious Right that could potentially alter the landscape of government in the United States.
We at AU take the threat of Pulpit Freedom Sunday very seriously, and we ask for your help in alerting us if you have evidence of pastors who may have compromised the tax-exempt status of their church. You can report violations at: projectfairplay.org.