Theocracy Watch XIV: Religious Right Lawbreakers

As reported by Americans United, thirty-three religious right churches endorsed Republican politicians from the pulpit on Sunday. This event was planned and orchestrated by the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious right legal group, which hopes to use it as a test case to have laws against church politicking declared unconstitutional.

Let’s emphasize at the outset something that religious-right spokesmen, in the coming weeks, will be working their hardest to deceive everyone about. There are no laws forbidding churches from endorsing political candidates. What we do have are laws forbidding churches from endorsing candidates if they want to retain their tax exemption.

This is not a unique and onerous burden placed only on religious groups; rather, it is the same generally applicable law that applies to all bona fide non-profit organizations. In exchange for the privilege of tax exemption, such groups are expected to abstain from explicitly partisan political activity. The churches that endorsed candidates are not protesting an unjust law designed to oppress them. Rather, they are arrogantly and greedily trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want the privilege of tax exemption without having to play by the rules that apply to tax-exempt groups.

In reality, the ban on church politicking is little more than a formality. The IRS code permits discussion of “issues”, which means that even churches that obey the letter of the law can very easily convey to their followers which candidate they are expected to vote for. I have little doubt that most of these churches’ members were already planning to vote for John McCain. After all, white evangelicals are one of the most consistently Republican voting blocs in the country. But this latest stunt is a demonstration that they don’t feel themselves obligated to obey even the minimal restrictions set by the law.

If churches truly wish to endorse candidates from the pulpit, then they should relinquish their tax exemption. AU has helpfully aided them in this by reporting six of the violators to the IRS. (One was the church run by Wiley Drake, whom you may remember was last seen urging his followers to pray God to kill advocates of church-state separation.) AU has said it will report the remaining churches if it acquires sufficient evidence, although the people behind this effort have said that they intend to submit the text of their sermons to the IRS themselves, which will be a nice saving of time.

Although the IRS has in the past been cautious to sanction violators, a sign of the undue respect paid to religion in this country, we can hope that they’ll recognize this deliberate attempt to undermine their authority for what it is and take appropriate action. This is likely to be an expensive and embarrassing lesson for these churches in the meaning of the First Amendment – and, hopefully, a disincentive for others to listen to schemers like the Alliance Defense Fund in the future. Given America’s financial chaos and the budget deficits that are certain to result, the taxes that I hope these churches will soon be paying are much-needed. That money can be put to more appropriate use, like funding public schools or repairing our decaying infrastructure, rather than supporting wasteful sectarianism.

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  • John

    I agree, politics should not be a part of church activity; give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar. Are there any other tax exempt groups? If there are, perhaps churches could change their exempt status on something else. In the end, I believe that most churchgoers don’t want to hear preachers talk politics.

  • mikespeir

    Thirty-three. On the bright side, I’m somewhat encouraged by the tens of thousands that didn’t participate. Not to say they’re any more in favor of separation of church and state, only that they’re willing, perhaps reluctantly, to obey the law.

    Still, the offenders ought to be prosecuted. Sadly, I, too, fear this will all be swept under the rug.

  • Leum

    Are there any other tax exempt groups? If there are, perhaps churches could change their exempt status on something else.

    There are plenty of tax-exempt groups, most non-profits and charities fall into that category as far as I know (although I am neither an accountant nor an economist). It would not, I think, be too difficult for a church to gain exemption as one of those organizations, and would make much more sense.

    My understanding is that the automatic exemption of churches came from a fear that the government would tax unpopular religions into oblivion, but there are probably better ways to prevent this from happening (since I’m not a financial lawyer, I have no idea what they would be).

    In the end, I believe that most churchgoers don’t want to hear preachers talk politics.

    Why not? A pastor is supposed to be a moral leader. Shouldn’t their political positions be informed by their superior understanding of God’s word and ethics? And therefore, shouldn’t the parishioners want to learn this superior understanding so they can vote in accordance with what is most morally right?

    (This may come across as sarcasm, but it’s not intended to. The idea that pastors shouldn’t preach politics has always confused me.)

  • Polly

    My understanding is that the automatic exemption of churches came from a fear that the government would tax unpopular religions into oblivion

    See, that’s the rationale I’ve always heard, too. And I’ve never understood it.

    No one worries that govenment will tax unpopular corporations (based on their products) into oblivion. If you have one set of tax rules for all churches, popular or not, as would be mandated by the establishment clause, then how could that create a problem? Any church that saw itself taxed more heavily would have a ready defense in the constitution.

    Chruhes Taxed differently – absolutely not.
    Chruches Taxed – why not?

    The only rationale is the mightily unbelievable prospect that the govenment would turn against religion in general and try to tax all churches out of existence.

  • Polly

    What the heck is going on with my spelling today? I meant “Churches taxed…”

  • Valhar2000

    Polly, churches really are chruch ;)

  • Christopher

    Polly,

    The only rationale is the mightily unbelievable prospect that the govenment would turn against religion in general and try to tax all churches out of existence.

    No, a nation-state like ours would never dispense with a tool that can surpress dissident thought as powerful as religion – even the Stalinists (who are often associated with anti-religion in its purest form) didn’t do that!

    The real reason for their protests is that they want to be recognized as intrinsically superior to other non-profit orgs and attain a level of special status. And many people in government would happily give it to them in exchange for preaching the “right” set of political ideals…

  • Justin

    I understand that churches have a 501(3)c tax exempt status. A 501(4)c would allow partisan political messages. While I’m no fan of church-state intermingling, is it possible for a church to gain 501(4)c status?

  • John

    Leum,

    No, I disagree, Churches should be about spiritual growth complemented by Biblical knowledge. Politics needs to stay out of a house of worship. As has been pointed out ad nauseum by Ebon, ministers are imperfect people. Their political opinion is just that – opinion.

  • Alex Weaver
    My understanding is that the automatic exemption of churches came from a fear that the government would tax unpopular religions into oblivion

    See, that’s the rationale I’ve always heard, too. And I’ve never understood it.

    Apparently things like that have been known to happen historically.

  • Edgardo

    Churches should butt out of politics since they know nothing about the issues facing our nation. Our constitution has pointed out that the line between church and state should never be stepped on. Yes, they could endorse candidates, but they must do it in their personal lives and not in front of people hoping to poison their followers. As an atheist that is upsetting to me that churches demand equality but give nothing to gays, lesbians and other left out groups.

  • Freak

    I’m surprised this didn’t come up in 2004 when Archbishop Burke stated that voting for Kerry would be a mortal sin. (Or is that why backpedaled soon afterwards?)

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    This isn’t a tax code designed to suppress those preachers. Hell, my issue of the Progressive came yesterday with a big Editor’s Note reminding the readers that they fall under this tax code and so won’t be endorsing anyone.

    Churches have always tossed excommunication etc around the issues. Now they want to endorse candidates. I say let ‘em – and tax ‘em. Nothing says they have to sell their metaphorical soul to the government.

    Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (or, KJV: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”)

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    This event was planned and orchestrated by the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious right legal group, which hopes to use it as a test case to have laws against church politicking declared unconstitutional.

    I was on travel this week and in the car quite a bit, so I listened to a lot of NPR. When this story broke, they mentioned this rationale for the churches stepping forward. They also had a sound-byte (I think it was from Rev. Barry Lynn from Americans United) about how this test case has already come up before and the churches lost, and that they will lose again if it does go to court.

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    “…Wiley Drake, whom you may remember was last seen urging his followers to pray God to kill advocates of church-state separation.”
    Luckily, nothing fails like prayer.