Aug 14, 2013

Congress should ignore a proposal by a group of evangelical and other religious organizations recommending that lawmakers end the prohibition against pulpit politicking, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.  

The report, prepared by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), will be delivered to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) today. It says churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations have a free-speech right to endorse or oppose candidates for public office.

Americans United sharply disagrees.

 “The law on church electioneering doesn’t need to be changed, it needs to be enforced,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “ECFA’s proposal would reduce America’s houses of worship to mere cogs in political machines.”

Added Lynn, “Americans reject pulpit politicking. They attend houses of worship for spiritual solace, not partisan preaching.”

Lynn noted that polls consistently show most Americans disapprove of houses of worship endorsing or opposing candidates for office.

The IRS has been in the process of changing an internal regulation that governs its ability to investigate houses of worship for politicking.

“The IRS has failed to make this simple change for more than three years,” Lynn said. “There is ample evidence of pastors openly violating the law. It’s time for the IRS to act.”

The report was prepared by ECFA’s Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations. Commission participants include the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and television preachers, and Liberty Counsel, which is affiliated with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University.

The commission has no legal authority or official power, thus Congress is not obligated to consider any of its recommendations.  

The commission’s report was prepared at the request of Grassley, who has been interested in issues related to tax-exempt organizations for years. At Grassley’s behest, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in 2007 began investigating several high-profile television ministries. Grassley believed the ministries might have been abusing their tax-exempt status, and he requested detailed financial information from them. The issue of church politicking was not part of the original investigation.

Grassley eventually encouraged ECFA to examine issues related to churches and financial accountability. ECFA then formed its commission, which issued a report in December 2012 as well as this latest report.

Americans United has expressed concern over the increased involvement of churches in partisan activity and has repeatedly asked the IRS to step up its enforcement in this area. AU has reported 128 violations of church politicking to the IRS since 1996.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.