Pastors’ civil disobedience over the tax code

On September 28, some pastors are planning to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, in defiance of the nation’s tax laws that forbid tax-exempt non-profit organizations from getting involved in partisan politics. The pastors hope to provoke the IRS to take action against them, thus making a test case that they hope will make it to the Supreme Court. They hope for a ruling that the tax laws constitute an unconstitutional infringement of the freedom of speech and of religion.

See Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted . What do you think of this action? Isn’t an out-and-out defiance of the law a violation of Romans 13? Isn’t it true that churches should keep the ministry of the gospel separate from politics? But should the state be forcing them to do that?

We might consider too the propriety of churches not paying taxes, which is one obligation to the state that the New Testament lifts up as appropriate, at least for individuals. Often communities resist the building of new churches because that takes property off the tax rolls. If churches were to pay taxes, wouldn’t that free up its ministry? But would we laypeople give as much to the church, if we couldn’t deduct it from our taxes?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Kirk

    I actually had a discussion on this with some friends the other day, most of what you see here is simply copied from that. My position is this: 501c laws are not a violation of free speech because no organization is obligated to retain its tax exempt status. If these pastors were really concerned about expressing their political views from the pulpit, they could simply start paying taxes. Technically, they wouldn’t be churches anymore, at least in the eyes of the government, but at their heart, they’d be the same organization that they were under 501c.

    In principle, I’m a proponent of keeping politics out of church. Its inclusion, while benefiting political parties, would damage the cause of Christ. Our churches face enough division through theological questions as is; adding politics to the equation would only lead to more strife and would drive non-believers away.

    Were churches to become politicized, popular pastors and denominational leaders would essentially become spiritual lobbyists, courted by political candidates. We’d see preaching for profit expanding beyond televangelism into the sanctuaries of battleground states.

    I don’t mean that the government should keep the church from evil. What I’m mainly concerned about is this: Christianity is judged as a body, and rightly so. The second that there is a perception that large churches are accepting funds to preach politics, the message of every church, pure or not, is suspect. As I said, much of the church is already corrupted. I hate what televangelism and certain unnamed purveyors of heresy are calling “gospel.” It kills me every time I think about it. These individuals would be the first to fall to political bribery and would do infinitely more damage to the cause were the barriers that prevent them from doing so to fall. Unfortunately, these churches are already corrupted. I just don’t want their negative influence to be increased.

    What’s more is, restriction on pastors’ speech is as much for the protection of the people as it is for integrity of the church. Removing the restrictions for churches essentially opens the floodgates for a multitude of abuses. If you allow one type of 501c to make political statements, then every lobbying group and political organization is going to classify itself as religious and start making partisan statements while receiving what amounts to support from the USG.

  • Kirk

    As for the NT obligation for churches to pay taxes, I don’t think that it’s applicable. Implicitate in commandments to pay taxes is the concept of owing “dues” to the government. When the government specifically says that you are not obligated to pay, which is what 501c status means, then there is no due and the commandment is fulfilled.

    As for its prudence, I can’t speak to that. I was not aware that church growth suffered because of tax laws. As for personal tithes, I’d hope that in the minds of parishoners, refunds are merely an added bonus, not something that factors into their decision to give.

  • EconJeff

    Is it really part of the Church’s ministry to be political? I don’t go to church for politics, but for the Word and Sacrament. The Word and Sacrament say nothing about whether McCain or Obama should win, so I’m really not sure why a pastor should say anything about the candidates (issues are a different story).

    And I don’t give to my church because of the tax benefits. I don’t itemize my deductions, so it really doesn’t make a difference. I give to my church to support its ministries (which are non-political).

    I agree with what Kirk (@1) has said, if they want to be political, there is nothing forcing them not to be.

    Certain organizations have been favored by the government because they do work the government supports, we call them charities. They include an organization that the state calls churches, which is not the capital “C” Church. If these churches begin preaching politics, they are likely to cease doing the work the government supports, so they will lose the governments favor. I see nothing wrong with that.

  • EconJeff

    And yes, I realize that my argument means that ALL political organizations should lose favor, too. I also see nothing wrong with that.

  • http://wdjd-whatdidjesusdo.blogspot.com Ryan

    Isn’t an out-and-out defiance of the law a violation of Romans 13? – Yes it is, unless the human law would cause one to break God’s law, which I am fairly sure this one doesn’t. However, I’m not sure that this is really a case of “breaking the law.” If the church wants to make political statements and is willing to pay taxes to do so they have not broken any human law and would not have violated Romans 13 in that respect. Likewise, if they fight through the courts to have the law changed (which is not really the court’s job, but that is a whole different discussion) while they are paying taxes and following the law, they still have not violated Romans 13 as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the law, but as I understand it, it give you a choice to either be non-political and tax free, or to be political and pay taxes. Either one is lawful. However, if the church decided to be political and still not pay taxes, that would be against the law and thus a violation of Romans 13.

    Isn’t it true that churches should keep the ministry of the gospel separate from politics? – Absolutely, the previous answer I gave was strictly from a legal point of view stating that it was permissible, but not all that is permissible is beneficial. The church is primarily here to preach the gospel, which is a stumbling block. If the church was to become political in support of one party, that would simply put up an additional stumbling block for the gospel to those who support the other party. Certainly not something we want to do.

    But should the state be forcing them to do that (keep politics out of the church)? No, not in a country such as ours that values the separation between church and state. The government should have no right to say what can and cannot be taught in a church, giving them this right in a small thing (no political endorsements) only opens the door for them to take this power in larger things (condemning homosexuality is hate speech). This should be avoided at all costs.

    We might consider too the propriety of churches not paying taxes, which is one obligation to the state that the New Testament lifts up as appropriate, at least for individuals. – This is true, but the NT does not tell us to pay taxes that are not required. If the state is content not to tax, they we may be content not to pay the tax.

  • http://www.rebelliouspastorswife.blogspot.com Rebellious Pastor’s Wife

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

    I would think taxing some churches would be prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and was probably why this law was created. It would be a real shame that a church couldn’t function because they couldn’t pay their taxes. And taxes could be increased on some churches in order to limit their ability to function, to show prejudice, or to simply crush them…especially in a society that is more hostile to Christianity in general, more and more characterizing our doctrines as hate speech, whether or not we name a candidate or not.

    The purpose of separation of church and state was not to keep the churches from guiding their people — in pointing out that certain candidates despise God’s law by advocating homosexual marriage or killing of human beings– preborn, unhealthy, or elderly. The point of the separation of church and state was to prevent CONGRESS from creating a state religion and thereby being able to persecute and deny civil rights to those of other religions, as happened so frequently in Europe. And this was in relation to Congress, not state governments. Many states had official religions until after the 13th Amendment, which was the first Amendment that established that state constitutions had to give the same rights as the federal. Before then, many states had official religions, and if you didn’t like it, or didn’t like other aspects of living in that state, you were free to move.

    Someone said some object to a church being built because it takes that property off the tax logs….that would be a county/state matter. Our congregation pays property taxes.

    Make no mistake, right now this interpretation of this law is being used to keep congregations from endorsing candidates and from persecuting from wthin those who support those candidates….but people are free to go to another church, as well as the church is free to choose to pay taxes. The church and the pastor need the freedom to preach according to what benefits their flocks. I don’t like it when churches get political, but then again, these churches are trying to serve God and our country by doing so.

    My own church body does not advocate preaching from the pulpit, we had Kingdom of the Left (government) and Kingdom of the Right (the Church) well before the First Amendment. I rarely agree with the congregations that are politically active (despite the media’s portrayal, many of them anymore are mainline, pushing a more liberal agenda on the world, rather than evangelical and pushing a more conserviative morality on the world..and the liberal churches aren’t being threatened with tax-exempt status loss).

    But I think it is a dangerous place to go to tell a church HOW they should be serving God when we are judging their doctrine and practice from the outside. In most situations where churches have been threatened with repeal of their tax exemption, we are not talking about churches that have become grass-roots politics machines, we are talking about pastors putting a candidate’s sign in the front yard of their home, speaking as a private citizen — but they have no freedom of speech as a private citizen because their home, which is part of their salary compensation, is owned by the church. We are talking about them simply mentioning a candidate by name or in descriptors clear enough to clearly indicate who it is — has no problem with killing babies or the infirm, or wants to change the definition of marriage and family. In most cases, this is enough to cause the loss of tax exempt status.

    It CAN be done without rallying behind a candidate or becoming a political grass roots organization. It can be done without naming a candidate. But eventually, it won’t matter.

    In most traditionally Biblical churches, it can’t be done without mentioning the issues themselves. Aristotle said somewhere that the application of moral issues to one person is called ethics, the application of moral issues to a society is called politics. While we say that legislators should not legislate morality, that is exactly what their job is. They make laws regarding whether it is right or wrong to murder, to steal, to lie, to beat a child or force them to work for low wages, to accept certain campaign contributions, to drive fast in your car (because it risks other people’s lives), or to be mean to someone because of the color of their skin, their gender, etc. Those ARE moral issues. It used to be that they recognized that sexual immorality and divorce were bad for our society as well…and they had a right to legislate them because the society pays the price for what happens “behind closed doors.” I am a social worker, and I have clients whom the government pays thousands of dollars for ONE FAMILY per MONTH for welfare, work training, child care, WIC, visitation, enforcing child support payments, court costs, and my services. It costs us.

    Eventually, churches that speak out against abortion and proclaim the sanctity of every life from conception to old age, who proclaim the beauties of marriage as God created it, between a man and a woman – and who use the Bible’s words to state what God thinks about same-sex “marriage” in the Bible’s terms, “an abomination,” will lose their tax exempt status and will be prosecuted and punished criminally and fiscally for their “hate speech.”

    It is already happening in Canada and in my home state of California. At some point, just like with colleges who did not reach racial quota levels — and were legislated from within or who lost all access to financial aid for their students (Hillsdale College for one)…churches will face the same thing. They will be policed if they address certain issues, and the congregation will gradually find that it is financially harder to survive in comparison to those who are saying the things the governnment wants. We may not agree with what some churches do politically, but if they are trying to serve God according to their consciences and are not committing crimes, should they be denied the same status as other churches?

  • jgernander

    I think the pastors would be serving their calls better, if they preached and taught the Bible’s doctrine of the angels on this Sunday, as September 29 is St. Michael and All Angels’ Day. Indeed, can’t God take care of our nation, even through His angels, better than a “sermon” that seeks to influence voting choices?

    Pastor J. Gernander, ELS

  • Rev. F. Bischoff

    I have always wondered how some churches get away with having Democrat candidates speak from their pulpits during a campaign. They never lose their tax exempt status. As a young adult I remember seeing Humphrey, Carter and others actually campaigning from the pulpit of some southern church and then being told by our pastor that he wouldn’t dare mention a Republican’s name from the pulpit, much less endorse him. Do southern Baptist churches get a pass on this?

  • Jeffrey G

    Dumb. You don’t loudly go poking the IRS with sharp sticks. You walk softly and not make any sudden movements.

    Oh, and churches don’t have to file for 501(c)3 to be tax exempt.

  • http://www.rebelliouspastorswife.blogspot.com Rebellious Pastor’s Wife

    I would agree, and that is one of the beauties of the pericopal system, it doesn’t allow us to focus too strongly on any one issue, and that is a flaw of many Church bodies that don’t subscribe to it. It is one of the protections that Lutherans have in becoming fixated on political issues.

    Often, pastors do not seek to address voting choices as much as catechize that abortion is condemned by the 5th commandment and to teach that God will provide for the children He has made, or to teach what marriage is under the 6th or even proclaiming the necessity of repentance and giving the assurance of forgiveness in such cases.

    It doesn’t have to be political for a non-religious bureaucrat or judge to see it as the church addressing “political issues” rather than these are issues that greatly concern God’s church AND the world in general.

  • Joe

    Rebel – a law of neutral application that is not specifically aimed at a religion or its institutions does not run afoul of the free exercise clause. As I understand it, a church’s tax exemption is one that applies to all 501(c)(3) charities. If that assumption is correct, it is not unconstitutional. Now, there still maybe an argument that it is unconstitutional as applied – i.e. the gov’t only enforces it against certain types of charities (like say churches) but that is a pretty tough row to hoe.

    I agree with you that it is important for our pastors to continue to address moral issues but I don’t think that requires them to talk about particular candidates unless it is to explain why someone is going to be denied the Sacrament.

  • Kirk

    @8: I agree completely that the law is often unfairly enforced, and if I remember correctly, that’s one of the reasons that the pastors wish to participate in the civil disobedience. With consideration for Romans 13, however, I think that the answer here is to continue to obey and to let the other churches do the wrong thing.

  • http://www.rebelliouspastorswife.blogspot.com Rebellious Pastor’s Wife

    Joe,

    I agree with you. There is generally no reason to discuss a particular candidate unless in regards to excommunication. But I do think that at some point in time the definition will be extended to churches who excommunicate politicians for actively promoting laws that contradict the doctrine they confess.

    And pretty much, what shows the flaw in this law is that it can be so blatantly unfairly applied to churches.

    If churches are given tax exempt status, and for the sake of freedom of religion and assembly, I do believe they should have it in a free society, it should be under a different status than other tax exempt organizations.

  • http://www.rebelliouspastorswife.blogspot.com Rebellious Pastor’s Wife

    And I don’t mean they should have tax exempt status by virtue of their being a church and not supposed to be under the government…

    I believe that the government should see fit to bestow it upon churches for the sake of promoting and ensuring freedom of religion.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    First, the reason churches don’t generally pay property taxes is because it gives the county assessor the power to discriminate against churches he doesn’t like. There is a very good reason–not to mention that any decent church ought to be doing things to reduce other county/city expenditures–say police expenses and such.

    Regarding advocating someone from the pulpit, I think both sides are wrong. To advocate a candidate from the pulpit is to wrongly suggest that this is the Word of God. That’s very serious–elucidate Biblical principles of government, but don’t advocate candidates.

    On the other hand, why does the IRS get to decide what gets said from the pulpit? This is, IMO, one of the chief reasons to repeal the 16th Amendment–it gets government into the minutiae of our lives.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    I think this is the wrong hill to be making a stand on, irrespective of how wrong or right they are.

  • Don S

    I disgree with the ADF on this issue as well. There is a lot a church can do, within the law, to advocate in the political arena as it is. They can advocate and endorce on ballot propositions, for example. They can have candidates for office speak from the platform (as long as the church makes it clear that they are not endorsing those candidates). They can distribute non-partisan voter guides that don’t explicitly endorse candidates, but serve to guide congregants toward a moral choice. The only thing that they cannot do is make an endorsement as the church. Our pastor, during election season, will simply encourage the congregation to vote, and say something like “I can’t endorse a candidate from the platform or in the name of the church, but if you want to know how I plan to vote, you can talk to me out on the patio afterwards.” These things are all well within the law.

    I think any church that takes ADF up on this invitation to civil disobedience is exercising poor stewardship. They will be risking their church’s tax exempt status, and involving their leadership in many hours of litigation preparation, for very little return.

  • Don S

    I should have said, in my post @ 17, that a church cannot make an endorsement of a candidate as a church. They can make an endorsement respective to other ballot issues. Just a clarification.

  • Rev. Bob

    These guys are going to ruin it for a lot more churches. I fear that this will backfire and that soon the government is going to try to start regulating churches even more.

  • Nemo

    And just think of all the other issues this is taking energy away from.

    From An open letter to the “religious right.” http://culture11.com/node/32162?page_view=1

    As a matter of political liberty I believe there are justifiable reasons to support such issues as prayer in schools and public displays of religious symbols. But I can’t imagine that on the Day of Judgment I’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant–you have faithfully fought to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.” More likely we’ll all be asked why we didn’t spend more time concerned about our neighbors in Darfur or fighting the global AIDS pandemic. Perhaps we should rethink our priorities and put the first things first.

  • The Jones

    Everyone, all people, and all organizations in the United States, including churches, have a right to free speech and expression. They do not have a right to tax-free speech and expression. There is a BIG difference between the two.

    There is a long precedent of not taxing churches that goes all the way back to Pope Urban III, and throughout the history of the church for the past 1000 years, I think this precedent has led to a pretty good relationship between church and state. I wouldn’t recommend changing anything.

    Now, if a church wants to, they can revoke that, and speak on a broader range of issues including political ones. However, I never recommend doing that. Too often, bringing politics and religion together does not mean that we’re raising up politics to the dignified discourse of religion. It usually means we’re bringing religion down to the rancor of politics.

    I like keeping the two kingdoms separate on this one.

  • Tony

    All other questions, contingencies, and justifications are moot. They are breaking the law. While they may be able to contrive great–even constitutional–reasons for doing so, and while civil disobedience may be acceptable in society’s eyes; they are knowingly breaking the law.

    Pastor Gernander (comments above) is correct in that their people would be better served by a St. Michael’s Day sermon.

    In the end, what’s the difference between using the pulpit for this and the way Jesse Jackson uses it?

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    All things being equal, I would not go to a church that promoted candidates from the pulpit.

    On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of the state being able to decide whether or not this has been done. It is one thing for a church to be seen as a political organization because it allowed its pulpit to be used to endorse a candidate. But I would wonder if some churches might be threatened because they preached the Law on a particular issue clearly and voters drew their own conclusions.

    I remember a story my old pastor told when I was growing up. In a previous congregation he served, President Nixon came to hear him preach. The pastor talked about the need to repent. “You need to repent,” or something of that sort was said. He had Secret Service men after the service asking him whether his remarks were addressed to the President. What could he say? He tried to explain that these things were not said with the knowledge that the President would be there, but that yes, this message applied to the President, too. They went around and around on this one.

    It’s easy to imagine that these laws will only harm preaching on the far Right or the far Left. But once the state has a role in evaluating sermons, a lot of people could be in for trouble. And if pastors have to spend a few minutes of time trying to figure out how their words could be taken wrong by Caesar, I think that is a bad thing.

    This challenge seems poorly designed. But something needs to be done.

  • Don S

    In response to Rick @ post #23, and some of the other posts above, the only thing a church cannot legally do is endorse a candidate for office during an election season. A pastor can preach on any moral issue he wants to and can advise a president or other office holder to repent, if he is led to do that. No problem, at least not legally. You can even have a candidate speak from the pulpit if you want to (as urban churches typically have Democratic candidates do), as long as you don’t endorse them in the name of the church. So there is no need for any change in the law to do the types of things that some would like to do as a pastor.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    I found some actual documentation of the rules:
    http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=154712,00.html

    This suggests that there are more ways of violating the rules than direct endorsement. You could also get into trouble for condemning a candidate’s actions close to an election.

    The current rule allows the IRS to do a “facts and circumstances” test on a case by case basis. Some are calling for a bright line rule which would allow charitable organizations to recognize potential violations more easily. Your description, Don, is of a (perhaps decent) bright line rule that is different from what is actually in force.

    In my own reading of these cases, many of them do turn out well. But I know from experience how chilling it is to get a letter from the IRS even when the case turns out fully in your favor.

  • Don S

    Yes, Rick @ 25, you are correct. I should have emphasized that churches must avoid an “anti-endorsement” of a particular political candidate, as well as an explicit endorsement. In other words, the pastor cannot say, “don’t vote for Candidate A because he believes in legal abortions”. Instead, the pastor can speak against the particular policy point with which he disagrees, on moral grounds, without referencing a candidate by name.

    Now, this is not to say that I don’t agree with you that “facts and circumstances” tests are wrong, because they don’t permit one to have confidence in their legal position, and can be misused by those intending evil. They are an unfortunate effect of our relativistic society. I would support a bright-line rule in this and most other areas of the law. My purpose in posting on this issue is to encourage pastors and other church leaders by reminding them that they have a lot more leeway to discuss politics from the pulpit than most think they do.

    Of course, it is up to each church to determine what they are comfortable in doing in the political arena. I would say, at a minimum, that a church should feel comfortable encouraging its congregation to register to vote, study the issues, pray about it, and make sure they vote. Beyond that, some churches would rather not go, while others will desire to provide further guidance to their congregations.

  • Anon

    Since the ‘highest law of the land’ – as far as governing the government is concerned; is the Constitution, are they violating Romans 13 by obeying the law and disobeying illegal ultra vires regulations? Are they not thereby obeying the law and refusing to disobey both it and the Two Kingdoms?

    Or was Al Capone rightful ruler of Chicago, and to be obeyed by all?

  • Anon

    Jones, the church being tax free is part of the way the Framers established the Two Kingdoms in America. For “the power to tax is the power to control, and to destroy.”


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