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I’ll Do What I Wanna! Pulpit Freedom Sunday

 

Rev. Ken Hutcherson has made a name for himself in the Seattle area as an anti-gay defender of the sanctity of marriage. He tried to organize a boycott against Microsoft when they first extended health benefits to same-sex partners of employees, years ago.

I attended Antioch Bible Church last Sunday to hear Rev. Ken Hutcherson speak on a different topic. It was Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and “Hutch” said that 1500 churches would be participating by breaking IRS rules against politicking from the pulpit. Church-state separation is fine, but to him this means that the state should stay out of the church and the church can say what it wants about politics.

At the end of the service, he brought up three local politicians and endorsed them. He said that this would all be taped and sent to the IRS. Though he joked about hoping that people would visit him in jail, his bold action wasn’t particularly dangerous, both because of the safety of the herd and because the IRS has been toothless about responding to provocations like this.

Consider the logic of Hutcherson’s position. He positions this as support for free speech rights. Ordinary citizens can publicly endorse candidates, so how could this be denied to churches?

But, of course, this comparison is flawed. Ordinary citizens aren’t offered nonprofit (IRS 501(c)3) status, so they don’t need to obey Internal Revenue Service rules constraining political activity. By contrast, churches eagerly accept this contract, but the obligations go both ways.

In return for parishioners’ being able to deduct their church donations from their income when computing tax owed, churches agree to certain rules:

Thou shalt not participate in any political campaign, either for or against any candidate.

Thou shalt not make any partisan comments when acting in a church capacity.

Thou shalt not contribute money to a political campaign.

Thou shalt not excessively lobby government.

Issue advocacy is allowed, but thou shalt not use it to make an implicit endorsement of a candidate.

But the IRS is righteous and just, and churches may organize non-partisan voter education activities, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote drives. Religious leaders speaking for themselves can say whatever they want, and they can speak “about important issues of public policy.”

For his sermon, Hutcherson used the first verses of Romans 13.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13:1)

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t recognize this divine authority, but if Hutcherson does, then his flouting the rules is all the more surprising.

Churches enter into IRS tax-exempt status of their own accord. If they don’t like these constraints, they don’t have to declare themselves nonprofits. This isn’t a free speech issue; it’s a contractual issue.

I wonder if Reverend Hutch remembers “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no” from James 5:12. That is, there should be no need for the Christian to say “I swear to God” (and risk violating the Fourth Commandment against blasphemy) because he should be a man known for keeping his word.

To Church leaders: 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 give your opinion about any candidate or issue.

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

If what you’re saying is that the whole relationship between religious nonprofits and taxes should be critiqued, I’ve written a lot about how messed up that is (here, here, here, here, and here). I’m happy to see some sunlight let into that issue, but I doubt you are.

Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights
by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.
— U.S. Supreme Court, Regan v. TWR (1983)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Ciaphas

    The blogger over at Bill in the Blank here at Patheos wrote about this issue from a right-wing christian perspective. His argument is asinine and seems to be that churches shouldn’t be taxed anyway because god is above government. If you don’t mind reading it, I would be curious if the same arguments were used by the pastor you saw.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billintheblank/2012/10/why-pastors-dared-the-irs-to-restrict-religious-freedom/

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the tip. I’ve commented here. Nothing new from this post, but at least it offers another perspective.

  • http://fernandapowers.com Fernanda

    I agree with you. If you don’t like the rules, don’t take the 501c3 status. Or, if the IRS determines that you are violating the rules and you feel that you can’t submit any longer as a matter of conscience then humbly accept the consequence of the 501c3 status being revoked for you.

  • http://theophor.us Ignatius Theophorus

    I am probably being needlessly contrarian, but I think that this matter is not the easiest in the world. While the rule should not be flagrantly disobeyed, at the same time it is very difficult to comply to the rule completely. For example: seven years ago, when I worked for Catholic Charities, my department was awarded $500,000 from the state to help people with their utility bills. It got written up in the diocesan paper. The name of the politicians who helped get the grant were included (if I remember correctly) as well as words to the effect of “bishop thanks so-and-so for grant.” It may not have been an explicit endorsement, but we can’t really say that it wasn’t. Then there are the times when the hierarchy of the Church makes commentary on social and economic issues. By there very nature, these will often side with one side or another during elections.

    But, for all of its politicizing I still think it would be better for the Church to stay tax exempt. If the Church lost her tax exempt status, then that would mean quite a few charities would go under. When I worked there, Catholic Charities had special funds set aside to protect persons who had overstayed their visa’s. It has been a very long time since the government of my state has offered to help these people, but the Church does. We were also able to do much more than the people at Welfare for a lot less money. And, before the suggestion is made, I don’t believe it would be a simple task to separate the moneys which are for feeding the homeless from the moneys which are for maintaining the buildings.

    I’ll agree that this is something which should be addressed, and that these pastors should all be fined, but leniency would be better than strictness as a rule.

    (two side notes. 1. If the solution is, say, making another 501(c)3 for secular perspective, I view that as a far superior solution than dismantling the charities run by the Church. 2. I know you’ve objected about church moneys going into black holes, but that is now quite the case with the Catholic Church. Most Catholic parishes have annual statements available (sometimes the secretaries might have difficulty *finding* them, but that is a separate issue), as do most diocese. If you’d like, you can find the Diocese of Seattle’s financial statement from 2011 here)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      IT:

      If the Church lost her tax exempt status, then that would mean quite a few charities would go under.

      Perhaps not as much as one might imagine. Churches in the US get $100 billion in donations every year, tax-free. The books of the church are closed, so we have only guesses about what fraction of that goes to charities. One guess I’ve heard repeatedly is that only 2% of that goes to other charities (compare to 90% for the best-run nonprofits!)–so I don’t see the Christian church as a major source of good works in this country.

      10% overhead vs. 98% overhead?? The church hardly qualifies as a nonprofit.


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