Yesterday was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a publicity stunt coordinated by the Persecuted Hegemon Legal Defense Fund, also known as the Alliance Defense Fund.
The ADF began as a cooperative program launched by several of the leading members of the religious right, including James Dobson and Pat Robertson. It’s two-part mission is to: 1) Raise lots and lots of direct-mail money by telling scary stories about the ACLU and convincing gullible Christians that their donations are the only thing stopping mass arrests by the homo-humanist Gestapo; and 2) Boost the self-esteem of evangelical Christians by insisting that they have every right to feel aggrieved and unappreciated.
Anyway, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is intended to create a court challenge to the law that says you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The cake, in this case, being the tax-exempt status enjoyed by churches. Churches don’t have to pay taxes, and contributions to churches are tax deductible. Along with that tax-exempt status comes the agreement that churches will not engage in direct, partisan political activity or official endorsements of political candidates.
ADF wants both. They want churches to be able to endorse candidates and engage in partisan politics and to remain tax-exempt while doing so.
That situation would, of course, be awesome for those churches — a cash bonanza like nothing the world has ever seen.
Think about it. The Obama and McCain campaigns have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, plus hundreds of millions more for the Democratic and Republican national committees, the state committees, the House and Senate re-election committees, the PACs and all the other candidates at every level of government. That’s a multibillion-dollar pot of money.
All of those groups and candidates have to raise money without being able to promise their donors a tax-deduction in exchange for their contribution. Now imagine those donors had a tax-deductible alternative. Imagine they could instead give this money to the churches in ADF’s network and take a tax deduction, knowing that the churches would simply be rechanneling the money to the same campaigns and committees. In exchange for this laundering service, the churches could skim a tiny percentage of the contributions. Cha-ching! It’d be like a license to print money.
That’s what the Alliance Defense Fund is shooting for.
They can’t come right out and say as much, of course, so instead they’re trying to frame this as a free speech issue. As the Associated Press notes, churches already enjoy freedom of speech when it comes to elections and political campaigns:
Under the IRS code, churches can distribute voter guides, run voter-registration drives, hold forums on public policy and invite politicians to speak [to] their congregations.
None of those activities threaten a church’s tax-exempt status, but that’s not good enough for the ADF. Thus, in the hopes of creating a test-case to challenge and try to change existing law, the group sponsored yesterday’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Pastors at some 33 churches across the country endorsed Republican John McCain from the pulpit. ADF figures that will prompt an IRS investigation that they hope to fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
But one political scholar suggested that the legal system may not uphold a challenge to the IRS restriction. If a lawsuit were to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices would probably side with the government over the church, said Christopher Wolfe, an emeritus professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
“I think the Supreme Court will say, ‘Listen, if you want to electioneer, fine, but then you have no right to the tax exemption,'” he said. “I don’t think the law will go away.”
Prof. Wolfe is right and the ADF knows this, but keep in mind what the ADF is really all about. It’s a “legal defense fund” only to the extent that posing as such provides fertile ground for its real mission: direct-mail fundraising.
ADF is hoping its challenge will take years to work its way through the courts — long, lucrative years during which they can send out millions of direct-mail solicitations warning their marks that “the IRS is trying to take away your tax exemption” and that the only way to save churches is to donate to ADF.
Sleazy, but time-tested.
Bonus link: Martin Marty on Pulpit Freedom Sunday.