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.
Other posts in this series: