Apples, oranges in political pulpits

fullpage 11Clearly, we are going to see a wave of coverage this weekend — perhaps peaking on Monday — focusing on the Alliance Defense Fund and the protests being planned under its “Pulpit Initiative.” As a guy with a degree in church-state studies, I am both fascinated and stunned by what is about to happen. It’s like preparing for a giant — yet scheduled — train wreck, and a strategic one, to boot.

But here is the key. I am not sure that anyone knows precisely what is going to happen this coming Sunday.

I say that, after reading the following report in the Los Angeles Times. Here’s the start of Duke Helfand’s report, which ran with the double-deck headline, “Pastors plan to defy IRS ban on political speech — Ministers will intentionally violate ban on campaigning by nonprofits in hopes of generating a test case.”

Setting the stage for a collision of religion and politics, Christian ministers from California and 21 other states will use their pulpits Sunday to deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates — defying a federal ban on campaigning by nonprofit groups.

The pastors’ advocacy could violate the Internal Revenue Service’s rules against political speech with the purpose of triggering IRS investigations. That would allow their patron, the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund, to challenge the IRS’ rules, a risky strategy that one defense fund attorney acknowledges could cost the churches their tax-exempt status. Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt groups to publicly support or oppose political candidates.

Now notice, right up front, that the lede contains an apple and an orange. What does it mean to say that clergy are going to “deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates.” What is a “political sermon” and what, precisely, makes a “political sermon” a violation of U.S. law?

There are all kinds of legal layers here. Let me sketch out a few.

(1) Take, for example, a priest who follows guidelines and preaches a sermon against abortion and related life issues on “Respect Life Sunday,” the first Sunday in October.

(2) But wait. This year, there will almost certainly be Catholic priests who stress that there are a wide array of life issues, other than abortion, that must be taken into account in the voting booth. This can be interpreted as offering theological cover for most Democrats, including the candidate for the White House.

(3) Then there are priests who will read Vatican statements that abortion is the issue that towers over others, a unique form of absolute evil. Some may even say that it is wrong to vote for candidates who actively support an unfettered right to abortion. Will these be political sermons? Wink-and-nod endorsements?

(4) It is also common for sermons to be delivered, in a wide variety of ethnic churches, that include statements by the pastor that say something like this: “This candidate is one of us.” Then everyone stands and cheers, while the pastor and the candidate embrace. Is that an endorsement?

(5) What about pastors who strictly stick to a social, moral or religious issue in a sermon — yet also say that it is sinful to vote for any candidate, in either party, who violates what the pastor believes is the biblical stand on that issue? These sermons can focus on the war in Iraq, abortion, universal health care, gay rights, etc. Are these “political sermons”? Do they, for all practical purposes, serve as endorsements for some candidates over others?

(6) Finally, what if the pastors say, “Now, brothers and sisters, I cannot tell you who to vote for! But I am going to vote for (fill in blank here), a long, longtime friend of this church.” Is that a personal or corporate endorsement?

So what are these “Pulpit Initiative” preachers going to do? All of the above? Will they openly endorse a candidate or pronounce an anathema on one?

Near the end of the Los Angeles Times piece — I think this information needed to go higher — we read:

The defense fund issued seemingly contradictory statements about the initiative. On one hand, it insists pastors will not endorse candidates and will simply exercise their constitutional rights by addressing “the differing positions of the presidential candidates in light of Scripture.”

On the other hand, the defense fund describes its efforts as a “strategic litigation plan” that seeks to “restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural truth from the pulpit” without losing a church’s tax-exempt status.

“The bottom line is that churches and pastors have a right to speak freely from the pulpit,” said Dale Schowengerdt, a defense fund attorney working on the project. “They should not be intimidated into silence by unconstitutional IRS regulations or rules.”

That doesn’t tell us much, now does it?

Stay tuned. This may get very, very complicated. But I guess that is the point. Repeat after me: Religious liberty is messy, but it beats all of the alternatives.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Frank Lockwood

    It’s not a great lead, and it misstates current law, I think.

    The IRS does not have absolute “rules against political speech.” Churches are free to speak out on issues. They’re not free to endorse candidates if they want to keep their tax-exempt status.

    Here’s how the IRS website describes the rule:

    “The prohibition against political campaign activity has been in effect for more than half a century and bars certain tax-exempt organizations from intervening on behalf of or in opposition to political candidates. However, these organizations can engage in advocating for or against issues and, to a limited extent, ballot initiatives or other legislative activities.”

    (Click here to go to the IRS page mentioned above.)

    Translation: It’s okay to take a stand on issues, but not on candidates. A minister can definitely say: God hates abortion. A minister can probably say: God hates abortion and so does John McCain. A minister can’t say: God hates abortion and wants you to vote for John McCain.

  • Jerry

    Is anyone reporting on the alternative that says that one cannot serve two masters and thus that those who want to speak politically are willing to give up a tax exemption to do so? I didn’t think so.

    By the way, the web site is offline right now.

  • Grupetti

    Here’s a really, really important resource for this issue:

  • Brian L

    Jerry – the LAT allowed religious figures from both sides of the legal question their say. So, someone is reporting – you thought wrong. Why don’t you actually read the article?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Great list. Actually, it shows why our government should never be in the business of “vetting” the sermons given in any religious edifice. There should be a tax exemption-period or no tax exemption-period.
    Maybe I read it here awhile ago,and if I remember correctly,the rule regarding endorsing candidates was pushed by Lyndon Johnson (a vindictive, power-hungry pol if ever there was one)who held a grudge that some church in his area had either attacked him or endorsed his opponent. Until then what went on in sermons was apparently none of the government’s business.
    Many years ago here in Mass. there was a movement to remove the tax exemptions from churches. The target was the Catholic Church. However, a survey showed that virtually all Catholic parishes could handle an added tax burden, but that it would cause hundreds-possibly almost a thousand tiny Protestant churches to close down–atheistic Communism through the back door it seemed like at the time.
    And adding to your list of 6–I gave a sermon this past week-end that I don’t think quite fits any of your 6. My topic was setting the record straight on the woefully inaccurate statements about Church History and doctrine made by “two prominent Catholic politicians” (with no mention of party). Frankly, I would like to have mentioned their name and party BUT I have found that what can be perceived as a Personal or partisan attack tends to be counter-productive. However, the decision should be mine as a preacher and not subject to bureaucratic second-guessing by the government.

  • Brian L

    This is how the ADL describes the pulpit initiative. Not very many details, but presents the basic contention of the movement.
    [see also: (which would not create a link in this post)]

    Perhaps the LAT missed the details because details were not forthcoming?

  • Rev. Michael Church

    Much like the article on texting, this leaves me scratching my head and wondering what other churches are really like. (I don’t get out much).

    While I am happy to talk to church members about politics after service, I generally try to stick to the Gospel when I’m in the pulpit, admixing just enough Law to make the Gospel appealing. When an illustration from the week’s news just cries out to be used (e.g., a certain wealthy NY governor whose annual charitable giving, some years ago, was less than many of of my little old ladies on pensions; Abu Ghraib), it does not take a rhetorical genius to talk about it without endorsing a particular party or politician.

    And when on occasion I slip, my experience, like Deacon Bresnahan’s, has been that people stop listening, and complain later. Often bitterly, and with justification. The members of my congregation don’t come to worship seeking a repeat of Olbermann or O’Reilly — and it mystifies me that so many others seem to.

  • Joel

    I wonder about the phrase “to a limited extent, ballot initiatives or other legislative activities.” My (Catholic) parish priest hasn’t been shy about Washington’s assisted suicide initiative, although so far I haven’t heard him actually say it was a sin not to oppose it. The announcement period after every Mass lately has at least one mention of the fight to defeat it. Does anyone know what the “limited extent” actually is, or is it left to IRS discretion? (A scary phrase, that!)

  • Jerry

    Brian L, you did not pick up my point. My point is that there’s an option always available to those that don’t like the law – give up their tax exempt status to do what they feel is right rather than deliberately break the law like a bunch of left wing 60′s protesters like I was :-)

  • Chet Lemon

    The defense fund issued seemingly contradictory statements about the initiative. On one hand, it insists pastors will not endorse candidates and will simply exercise their constitutional rights by addressing “the differing positions of the presidential candidates in light of Scripture.”

    On the other hand, the defense fund describes its efforts as a “strategic litigation plan” that seeks to “restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural truth from the pulpit” without losing a church’s tax-exempt status.

    I am missing the “contradiction.” Help?

    Also, something I keep reading while I study this issue is an iteration of: “Well, if they want to talk about candidates, they have to give up their tax exemption.” Though oft-repeated, I have yet to hear one constitutionally-derived argument in favor of the position that the IRS can condition a tax exemption upon the surrender of core First Amendment freedom. Haven’t churches always been tax exempt? What was the reason for the insertion of the 1954 provision in the tax code? Answer: a political vendetta by a nasty, nasty politician who simply didn’t like criticism. Does one politician’s revenge trump the US Constitution?

    I think we all need to study the reason why clergy are subject to IRS editing of their sermons in the first place before we start treating this speech suppression as a given to be mindlessly defended.

  • Chet Lemon

    No matter what one thinks about whether or not pastors should discuss the positions of candidates for office, can’t we all agree that churches should make those decisions for themselves and not be punished by a federal tax agency for the decision they make?

    Why is it OK to criticize sitting politicians and not risk tax exemption? Why would it have been OK for a pastor to criticize Arnold about the violence in his movies and the negative impact he has had on children as a public figure, but suddenly, on the day he becomes a candidate for governor, the pastor can no longer utter a peep about him?

    Think about it. The more you do, the more silly the IRS regulation becomes.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “who held a grudge that some church in his area had either attacked him or endorsed his opponent”

    Actually, the ban on candidate endorsements wasn’t due to churches and other religious organizations, it instead regarded right-wing “anti-communist” organizations that were promoting McCarthyism. We have to remember that the laws governing non-profits include religious and non-religious groups alike.

    Does anyone know what the “limited extent” actually is, or is it left to IRS discretion? (A scary phrase, that!)

    The “limited extent” refers to the amount of money in a non-profit’s budget that can be spent on endorsing or defeating a ballot initiative. To much and, in the eyes of the IRS, you cease to be a non-profit, and instead become a political organization. There are also rules regarding full disclosure of campaign contributions.

  • Brian Walden

    Question: Do organizations have freedom of speech or does that only extend to individuals?

    According to the IRS page Frank Linked to there is a certain category for nonprofit organizations who want to endorse political campaigns and categories for those who don’t (it’s not only churches who these rules apply to). Is this a violation of free speech to make organizations fit into a certain category to receive certain benefits?

    Chet, I don’t think a person being a candidate automatically makes them off-limits for criticism. For example when VP candidate Joe Biden made pro-abortion statements on Meet the Press he was publicly criticized by several Catholic Bishops. The Bishops mentioned him by name and cited his specific actions and words. As far as I know, those dioceses are not at risk of losing their tax exemption.

    I share your distrust of government, but I tend to side more with Jerry’s ‘if you don’t like the rules, don’t take the money’ approach. This type of thing doesn’t just apply to nonprofits. For example, if a state wants federal money for highways it must set it’s drinking age to 21. That’s just how politics works.

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  • Chet Lemon

    But Brian, I think we need to remember, no one is constitutionally guaranteed the “right” to drink at any particular age. By the same token, no one is guaranteed the “right” to drive at any particular speed.

    The point is, even if we are to call a church’s tax exemption a “benefit,” the government still cannot withhold a “benefit” on the condition that the pastor of that church surrender his core First Amendment freedoms. I reject the idea that the government has any right to tax churches in the first place and reject the idea that a federal tax agency should have ANY role in monitoring the content of speech uttered inside those churches, so I only used the word “benefit” to illustrate that the argument even fails if we were to assume that tax exemtion was a benefit rather than a given.

    Your example is another one of “apples to oranges.”

  • Jason

    @Chet Lemon, Where does the Constitution say that churches get condition-free tax exempt status? It does not.

  • Julia

    Where does the Constitution say that churches get condition-free tax exempt status? It does not.

    Exactly. If a church wants to promote certain candidates for office, it can give up it’s tax-free status.

    Or its members, as individuals, can join “Catholics [or whomever] for Kerry” or “Catholics [or whomever] against Kerry”. The political non-profits are subject to Federal, state and local election rules that do not apply to churches and other non-profits.

    You make choices in life – with consequences. My pastor can come to my house for dinner and we can be as partisan around the table as we want, but he can’t do that in his official capacity from the pulpit or our parish tax status is in jeopardy.

  • Brian Walden

    Chet, if governments indeed had no right to tax churches, then I would also reject the idea that a federal tax agency should have ANY role in monitoring the content of speech uttered inside those churches.

    But the government certainly doesn’t recognize any such limitation on its rights. What’s the argument for the government having no right to tax churches and/or for churches having the right to be tax exempt?

  • Dave

    The point of any form of tax exemption is that we (through our government) decide that some institutions are worthy enough that contributions to them should be able to be written off on the contributors’ tax returns. Therefore those institutions are to some extent tax-supported. There are a few activities that may not be done by a tax-supported institution, and primary among them is candidate politics. As Julia says supra, you choose your status and accept the consequences.

    As to the report, I have heard different versions as to whether the plan is to violate the above from the pulpit or not. If they don’t violate it, there is no challenge to the IRS and no adverse ruling to appeal. If they do violate it, they risk their tax-exempt status. I don’t see how they can do both, ie, challenge the IRS without risking their status.

  • Brian L

    @Jason, et al.

    The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    The power to tax is the power to control. A tax on a church is a law respecting an establishment of religion. It is not so much that churches are “tax-exempt,” as though that is the decision of Congress or the IRS to make. It is rather that, by First Amendment protection, churches are outside of the tax structure.

    The First Amendment was written in the context of minority churches arguing that they should not have to pay taxes to support the state churches of individual colonies. Removing the power of the state to tax churches is not the only thing the establishment clause accomplished, but it is part of the genius of our American constitutional government.

    Churches are not “just like other non-profit organizations.” Churches are specially exempted organizations that are protected by the highest law of the land from the foundation of our country. Some folks don’t like that. They are welcome to petition their elected officials and propose a new Amendment that would recall the First.

  • Dave

    Brian L, that’s an interesting theory you present on why churches should not be taxed. Is it yours, or are their legal precedents to back it up?

    In any event, the issue at hand is not exemption from direct taxes, but the right of supporters to write off their contributions on their income tax returns. Your exegesis of the First Amendment would have to stretch rather far to include this as a first principle.

    Churches are not “just like other non-profit organizations.”

    Obviously, churches are unlike other non-profits because they involve worship and its attendant freedoms. But mere assertion doesn’t establish a legal basis for singling out churches for special treatment among non-profits.

    Lest there be any confusion as to motive, I belong to a small congregation that would benefit from the kind of legal theory you are presenting. I just don’t happen to believe it’s valid.

  • tmatt


    Please take the legal wars elsewhere, or find a way to discuss this in the context of media coverage — the purpose of this blog.

  • Dave

    OK, Terry: It’s Sunday afternoon. What have the media said about the Great Pulpit Revolution in practice?

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