Pulpit Freedom Sunday: They Preached. They Endorsed. Did They Break the Law?

Despite 60,000 letters from Americans United for Separation of church and State, some 1,500 pastors of various denominations took to the pulpit to endorse political candidates last Sunday.

This action is not only controversial in the nation as a whole, clergy are divided about it, as well.

At the very least, Pulpit Freedom Sunday raises the question of whether or not the government can limit critics from having their say from the pulpit. A Baptist Press article about Pulpit Freedom Sunday says in part:

Charlotte, USA – Baptist Pastor Mark Harris stood before his flock in North Carolina on Sunday and joined hundreds of other U.S. religious leaders in deliberately breaking the law in an election-year campaign that tests the role of churches in politics.

By publicly backing candidates for political office from the pulpit, Harris and nearly 1,500 other preachers at services across the United States were flouting a law they see as an incursion on freedom of religion and speech.

Under the U.S. tax code, non-profit organizations such as churches may express views on any issue, but they jeopardize their favorable tax-exempt status if they speak for or against any political candidate.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” has been staged annually since 2008 by a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom. Its aim is to provoke a challenge from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in order to file a lawsuit and have its argument out in court.

The event has grown steadily in size, but the IRS has yet to respond – even though the pastors tape their sermons and mail them to the agency.

Now in an election year, where a few swing states – including North Carolina – will be crucial, political analysts say pastors campaigning from the pulpit could have an impact.

Critics say the movement threatens the U.S. constitutional principle of separation of church and state and makes pastors look like political operatives rather than neutral spiritual leaders.

“When the church further divides the country, where’s the win in that?” asked Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, and an opponent of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

In his sermon at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, Harris endorsed a Republican candidate for the state’s Supreme Court, but did not specifically takes sides in the Nov. 6 contest for the White House between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

“I don’t feel I’m breaking the law,” Harris said before addressing a congregation of almost 1,000. “I am speaking as a pastor and as a citizen of the United States where we have that freedom of speech.” (Read more here.)

Warning Letter to 60,000 Pastors: We’re Watching What You Preach

Americans United for Separation of Church and State evidently sent copies of this letter to 60,000 pastors recently. It’s important to remember that Americans United is not an official agency of any governmental entity. This letter has no force of law and is just their opinion. Our local AU affiliate here in Oklahoma has sent similar letters to pastors in my House district in the past. The pastors I talked to about it tell me they threw it in the trash.

 


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