Tax Fix: ADF 'Pulpit Initiative' Sparks Ethics And Tax Exemption Complaints

If I were a lawyer working for the Alliance Defense Fund, saying my week was off to a bad start would be the biggest understatement of my career.

The prominent Religious Right legal group seems to have landed itself in some deep trouble after spending the last few weeks encouraging churches across the country to violate federal tax law on Sept. 28 by endorsing candidates from the pulpit.

Such electioneering is prohibited by a 1954 amendment to the Internal Revenue Code that says nonprofit, tax-exempt entities may not "participate in, or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office" -- and that includes churches and other religious organizations.

So it's not shocking that the ADF's "Pulpit Initiative" could possibly result in some of its lawyers losing their licenses to practice before the Internal Revenue Service as well as loss of the group's tax-exempt status.

At least that is what three former top officials of the Internal Revenue Service think should happen, and it seems as though they have a pretty good understanding of tax law and professional ethics. Mortimer M. Caplin was the IRS commissioner during the Kennedy administration, Marcus S. Owens is the former head of the IRS's tax-exempt division and Cono R. Namorato was the former head of the office of professional responsibility at the IRS until 2006.

In a letter to the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, Caplin, Owens and Namorato accuse the ADF of "coordinating mass violation of federal tax law." They say this clearly violates the ethics rules governing practice before the IRS, and an investigation is called for.

These three tax experts filed their complaint in conjunction with a group of Ohio clergy who oppose pulpit-based electioneering. The Rev. Eric Williams and other religious leaders objected to the ADF's plan for churches to violate tax law based on legal and moral grounds.

In a letter to IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller, the clergy wrote, "As leaders of legitimate religious organizations, we simply cannot condone this kind of organized circumvention of a law that the federal courts have upheld as constitutional. It demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the line separating church and state and thereby threatens to undermine the very ethos of the religious community in America."

ADF attorneys claim their "Pulpit Initiative" is supposed to trigger an IRS investigation that they could then challenge in federal court, The Washington Post and The Columbus Dispatch reported.

It seems that lawyers for the Alliance Defense Fund are so wrapped up in finding ways for the Religious Right to trample on the separation of church and state that they forgot they swore to follow the law when they were admitted to the bar.

Assuming ADF attorneys went to law school, took a required course on professional responsibility and sat for the bar exam's ethical portion -- they should have known better.