Why Pastors Dared the IRS to Restrict Religious Freedom

Why Pastors Dared the IRS to Restrict Religious Freedom October 10, 2012

Across the nation this past Sunday, October 8, about 1,600 pastors told the IRS to go to – well, let’s just say they gave notice of non-compliance in defense of religious freedom. In an annual event that began in 2008, pastors preached sermons from the pulpit that offered Biblical critiques of specific candidates’ political positions in violation of the Johnson Amendment of 1954. Read the CNN account here.

Videos of many of the sermons were then sent to the IRS as pastors dared them to act. Their goal? Create a test case for the courts to decide whether pastors’ constitutional rights are being violated by the Johnson Amendment and the IRS’s on-going threats to revoke their tax-exempt status.

Coordinating the effort was the group Alliance Defending Freedom. See Alan Sears’ blog on the event here. Lead Senior legal counsel Erik Stanly framed the event this way according to Bob Unruh at WND:

“[T]hey are simply applying Scripture and theological doctrine to the positions held by the candidates running for office,” he said. “Pastors have been applying scriptural teaching to circumstances facing their congregations for centuries.

“This is not ‘political’ speech,” he said. “Rather, it’s core religious expression from a spiritual leader to his congregants. That kind of expression is at the very center of the freedom speech and religion protections in the First Amendment.”

The Problem with Pastors

As a student of non-profit law at Case Western Reserve University while pursuing my MBA in non-profit management, I found religious organizations have much more legal latitude to speak to public policy issues than they think. My experiences with pastors, though, taught me that almost all are terrified of losing their 501(c)3 status.

Imagine the pulpits that prepped public thinking prior to the War for Independence not daring to speak against abuses by the King? I likely wouldn’t be writing this today – nor would you be reading it. They spoke clearly, biblically, and sometimes stridently and specifically about the political issues and figures of the day. There was no IRS charitable status to fear losing. Their life and property? Maybe. But still they spoke.

Pastors should be able to speak with clarity on moral issues regardless of whether those issues affect candidates for public office.  It is foolish to say that pastors should speak to issues that pertain to an individual but not about those individuals who want to lead parishioners astray.

Pastors should be able to say that anyone who votes for a candidate who supports the murder of an unborn child is endorsing murder. Certainly President Obama’s track record would qualify his name being on those sermon notes. Pastors should be free to decry egregious violations of our God-given rights such as the Obama administration’s HHS mandate. Pastors should be free to boldly speak of the evil of crushing national debts that enslave our nation and make us servant to the lender. The list goes on.

That’s not to say they should wait for the OK from the IRS to say these things. They should have the courage to speak the truth in love as they ought to obey God rather than men.  I don’t recall Biblical prophets, John the Baptist, or Paul checking IRS regs before speaking truth to power. But most pastors won’t touch any issue that might dampen the bottom line.

We worship what we fear. The fact is most pastors worship money and the thought of losing it buys their silence. Even when the text of Scripture would compel them to state the obvious.  If you know to do good and don’t do it…. I’m just saying.

The Problem with the IRS

I recall one non-profit law class in which we discussed churches as 501(c)3 organizations. The consensus was that such organizations merited tax-exempt status because they did something more efficiently and effectively than the government could do. On that basis alone, they were deemed worthy of tax-exemption – as if the government were simply paying for a service to society through the back door.

The core assumption was that the government was doing charities, and churches especially, a favor by letting them be exempt from certain taxes.

I posed a challenge to this effect: “Why are we talking as if all money inherently belongs to the government which then chooses whether or not it will grant tax-exempt status to churches based on the utility they perform on behalf of the government?”  It seemed to me that this thinking simply made everyone an agent acting on behalf of the civil government.

The answer was revealing as the professor – whose class I enjoyed and found most enlightening – quickly did two things. He politely labeled me as an extremist, “What you are suggesting is a libertarian approach,” and then promptly dismissed the question without answering it. Frankly, I think he had been so deeply steeped in statist thinking for so long that to think any other way seemed unthinkable. His worldview blinded him to some simple truths.

Churches are not tax-exempt because they can do something more efficiently than the government or because they are doing government a favor. They are tax-exempt because civil government has no business tampering with the content of sermons. It is an acknowledgement that God has placed limits on government’s authority. It goes both ways, of course, but unless churches are raising armies and militias to challenge the state authority, the state has little to worry about these days (a.k.a. the Holy Roman Empire).

But churches have much to fear as freedoms so basic as the First Amendment have been subtly stripped away.

If anything, it is the churches that do the government a favor by existing. De Tocqueville wisely noted that when America ceases to be good she will cease to be great. A democratic republic such as ours requires moral depth to function. And what is the mission of churches if not to get into the messiness of people’s lives and help them to do good?

No government but the most brutal can long exist in a society decaying into selfish anarchy. A healthy church and state are both vital to a peaceful and productive society. When one can effectively silence the other, our society loses a critical voice to warn of coming collapse.

Someday soon, pastors may have to choose to walk away from tax-exempt status to faithfully proclaim truth in our culture. Perhaps one of these 1,600 will find out just how soon that will be.

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  • Craig

    Churches are not tax-exempt because they can do something more efficiently than the government or because they are doing government a favor. They are tax-exempt because civil government has no business tampering with the content of sermons.

    Civil government has no business tampering with the content of my family’s dinner table conversations and bedtime stories. Should my family therefore be tax-exempt?

    • Craig,

      Thanks for the comment and question. Most families can take a deduction for children (if applicable based on income). If the government said that you could only take that deduction if you did not address political issues at the dinner table or at bed-time, I think youd have a more analogous scenario. The bottom line is that whoever has control over the money supply, has some degree of control over the content. If your parents can cut off your allowance (not saying you still get one :)), you will tend to conform to their wishes. Likewises with churches — and families. In the public sphere, history has taught us that any culture is in a dangerous situation when the churches can no longer speak truth to all areas of life including politics and to those in power.

      Now, if no one wants to hear it, the pews will sit empty.

      What makes it especially challenging is that the line between what is “acceptable” political speech is hazy at best when dealing with issues that affect public life and policy. Yet the Bible clearly speaks to these issues and the church would be negligent for not addressing them.

      Joe has a good question in another comment: Would we still give if we didn’t get the tax deduction?

      • Craig

        One way to avoid this tampering, then, would be to simply remove the tax-exempt status for churches across the board. If, as you suggest, such tampering is the main problem, why isn’t this a legitimate option?

  • Joe Canner

    I agree with the first half of your argument (“The Problem With Pastors”), but I don’t follow the second half. Exemption from paying its own tax is only part of the story when it comes to a church’s tax-exempt status. At least as important (if not more so) is the fact that the donations themselves are tax-exempt. This makes it an issue not just for the church but for it’s members. Your challenge to pastors, then, extends to the members: would we still support our churches if our donations were not tax-exempt?

    I would also contend that your argument about why churches are tax-exempt does not apply to whether donations to churches should be tax-exempt. The government has a right and a responsibility to tax (we can argue some other time about how much and for what purpose). The government has chosen to reward those who give to charities with tax deductions (we can also argue some other time about why the government does this). This reward is not a right but a privilege and the government is certainly entitled to attach strings. So, if the government decides that churches are not acting in ways consistent with their tax-exempt status and takes away that status, church members will have to decide whether to continue giving, as noted above.

    Incidentally, I think the pastors’ tax protest is ill-advised as it is more likely to result in the suspension of all tax-exemptions and tax deductions rather than in the granting of more freedom of speech from the pulpit.

    • Thanks, Joe. You make a valid point about the distinction between the church paying tax and the deduction for member’s giving. My conversation in the class that I referenced was about the church itself being exempt. But your question is a good one: Would we still give if our offerings were not tax-deductible? I’m afraid of what that answer would be for many.

  • Mountain Man

    Government meddling in matters of faith should outrage us, but we’ve gradually accepted increased intervention into so much of our lives we’ve gotten used to it. I approach the issue from the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…” No law. Seem pretty clear to me. Every law regarding religion, no matter who noble seeming or beneficial, should be repealed.

    • You’ve got the gradual part right, for sure. Now even to suggest government overreach is seen as radical. Thanks for the comment.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    The pastors pretend that the issue is about free speech, but it’s really about keeping your word. As in, “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no.” They didn’t sign up for nonprofit status under duress, so they should honor the contract. If the contract is burdensome, no problem–give up nonprofit status.

    You’re right that people are often confused about what their contract with the IRS actually prohibits. They can speak about issues, for example. But politicking from the pulpit is a no-no.

    I think you’re mistaken: the rights aren’t given by God. They’re given by the Constitution.

    I’ve commented more here: “I’ll Do What I Wanna! Pulpit Freedom Sunday

    • Bob,

      Thanks for the comment. Which rights are you referring to when you say they are given by the Constitution and not God?

    • Craig

      What Bob points out is fairly straightforward. What am I missing? Are there other kinds of tax-exempt non-profit organizations that have enjoy greater liberties regarding political speech?

      • Thanks for the question, Craig. Bob’s argument is that they knew the limits when they signed up. Thta isn;t technically true sincethe restriction went into lace in 1954, well after many churches in existence today had already been fucntioning for centuries. The case coudl be made thta the individual pastor shouldn’t have gone into the ministry then (complicated bythe divine call for sure) or that they should only have rpeached in churches willignot forego tax-exempt status. Sopme argue today that the IRS letter of standing has no bearing on the churches actual tax-exempt status. I don’t claim to know the intricacies of the tax law on that point. My argument would be that the IRS letter SHOULD BE irrelevant. If it is relevant then, it should not be. I am arguing for hwta should be

        Let me see if I can make my point with an analogy. I’ll try 2:
        1. In Judges, Jepthah made his foolish vow about offering to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his door if he won the victory. Some commentators claim that he didn’t actually sacrifice his daughter, though I believe the textual evidence suggests that he did kill her. Either way, he did something that was not right because he had given his word to do it, either murder or denying his daughter marital possibilites for the future. Should his Yes have been Yes and his No have been No in that circumstance? I don’t believe so. The mistake was his. He should have confessed his error to God and taken the consequecnes for this foolish committment, whatever they may have been. The application here is that if a pastor realizes he has made a foolish or unbiblical cmomittment, should he be required to keep the comittment though it causes him to violate his conscience before God?
        2. But this scenario doesn’t capture the essence of the concern. It would be more like Jepthah promising to sacrifice whatever came out of someone else’s front door when he had no authority to do so. The question here is does the IRS have the Consitutional or the Biblical right to restrict what comes out of the ‘front door” of the churches? If they do, the question then becomes a constantly shifting argument about just how much control the government has over the church, a line that will fluctuate based on the whims of the political leaders of that age, instead of whether or not it should have much at all. If not, then the restriction has no legal binding on those who ought to obey God rather than men. The reason the IRS, or the government before the IRS sprang into existence, did not previously have the power to tax churches was that it was understood that whoever controls the money, controls the church. And we didn’t wnat the government controlling our churches. See centuries of the worst of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages for examples of what happens when the government controls the purse strings and, consequently, the pulpits.

        Summary: churches are tax exempt because they are churches, not because the government says so. A wise government will keep it that way to ensure pastors have the freedom to speak truth to the culture. It’s only weak political leaders who fear criticism from church leaders. That’s why I started by recognizing that pastors choose silence for fear of losing funding. Exactly the problem.

        Maybe this will move us closer to understanding. Maybe not. It’s worth a shot :).

        • Craig

          Your main concern still seems to arise from the leverage that comes from the fear that a pastor will cause the church to lose its tax-exempt status. Why isn’t the solution for the church simply to surrender this tax-exempt status so as to remove this leverage? In short, pastors can look for modern application in Jesus’s original advice: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; and to God what is God’s.”

          You say that “churches are tax exempt because they are churches, not because the government says so.” This won’t do anymore than it will do for Mitt Romney to claim tax exemption because “he is Mitt Romney–and to hell with what the government says.” What you need to do is explain why a church should be tax exempt. If all you can point to is the leverage described above, then you have failed to offer an explanation: you have failed because if there is no tax exemption for churches then there is also none of that feared leverage.

  • Dave Warnock

    I agree with what has been stated here before; but some just don’t seem willing or able to grasp the simplicity of the issue. Church leaders can (and should) say what they want from the pulpit. And if they want to endorse a particular candidate; or speak to a certain issue, then they should do so. But they should not expect the government to continue to offer tax-exempt status if the pastors are refusing to abide by the rules of the exemption. It is NOT a free speech issue. Christians want to scream “persecution” very quickly when someone steps on their toes. They can’t eat their cake and have it too. It’s so clear that you have to not want to see it not to see it. If the freedom of speech is the real issue, then get bold and speak up- and at the same time…turn in your 501c3 papers. Or is it really about the money after all?

    • I agree with you Dave, that given the preent situation, pastors should be willing to turn in the papers if need be. But my point is that the governmetn should not put such constraints onthe tax-exempt status out of respect for the separation of authority and the dangers of intruding into areas that will ultimately be self-destructive to good government.

      • Dave Warnock

        For the government to give undue respect to a religious institution- ie, a church, and not to some other civic group or even a business, is to put its stamp of approval on it. The fact that the government has granted tax-exempt status all these years to churches, doesn’t mean they are morally obligated to keep doing so. And for churches to assume the government has an obligation to do so- and then for churches to flaunt their “freedom” in the face of the government is simply arrogant. I think its respect for the separation of church and state that the government should possibly NOT grant tax-exempt status. And I guess you are saying that ultimately, the churches are good for government and to stifle tax-exempt status would be self-destructive? I do not agree at all with that position.