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Pastors Speak Their Mind (and Flout the Rules)

Jesus, God, and all thatIt’s another dreaded election year, and the leaders of many religious organizations somehow feel put upon by the IRS because they can’t preach about politics.

But why? No one forced tax-exempt donations on them—in fact, they took them willingly—so it’s surprising that they’re now chafing at the regulations that come along for the ride. The solution is easy: if nonprofit status is a deal with the devil, then don’t accept nonprofit status.

The Internal Revenue Service makes clear that churches and pastors may organize non-partisan voter education activities, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote drives (with an emphasis on non-partisan). Religious leaders speaking for themselves can say whatever they want, and they can speak “about important issues of public policy.”

However, all nonprofit organizations, including religious organizations

are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. … Religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions. …

[Nonprofits] must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.

But many pastors can’t accept this. I don’t know if they honestly think that it’s unfair or if they figure that they’ve already tipped the playing field so much in their favor that they’ll try their luck for even more, but the Alliance Defense Fund has organized the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday (October 7 this year). On this day:

The pastors will exercise their First Amendment right to preach on the subject [of the moral qualifications of candidates seeking public office], despite federal tax regulations that prohibit intervening or participating in a political campaign. …

The point of the Pulpit Initiative is very simple: the IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status. We need to get the government out of the pulpit.

Wow—strange thinking. Tax-exempt status is granted by the government. It’s a contract, not a right, and it comes with strings attached. If we the public will be subsidizing an organization, we are entitled to limit its actions. No one’s strong-arming the church, and they can drop both the nonprofit status and the strings attached any time they want.

To some extent, it’s a zero-sum game. (For example, when Mormon desires for polygamy clashed with the needs of the state, someone had to lose.) The head of the IRS addressed this conflict of tax-exempt status and freedom of speech:

Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy. But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, “Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.”

If the IRS constraints against speaking out on political issues are a problem, then don’t enter into a contract with the IRS. Drop your nonprofit status, tell church members that they can no longer deduct donations, and then you can give your opinion about any candidate or issue.

But to keep your nonprofit status, you must follow the rules.

See the first post in this series: What do Churches Have to Hide?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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About Bob Seidensticker

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