Let’s Get Ready to Rrrrrrrumble!

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 8, 2008 — 4 Comments

Should religious institutions be allowed to endorse political candidates? Since 1954 it has been illegal for non-profits, including all religious bodies, to formally endorse (or oppose) a political candidate. This ban was introduced by Lyndon Johnson in an attempt to stem the tide of McCarthyism, which had found fertile ground in a variety of right-wing non-profit organizations. Since then, a variety of religious bodies have complained bitterly about their lack of freedom, and the Alliance Defense Fund is planning to do something about it.

“Declaring that clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors to do just that on Sept. 28, in defiance of Internal Revenue Service rules.”

This initiative, called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, is done in hopes of sparking a legal challenge that will go to the Supreme Court and overturn the IRS ban. An Alliance Defense Fund promotional video for the initiative, while invoking constitutional rights and Martin Luther King Jr., makes it plain that this is about Christian churches reclaiming political and social power.

However, the ADF’s mission might get derailed before it ever begins. A coalition of Christian and Jewish clergy, along with three former IRS officials, wants the IRS to determine if the ADF itself is violating the law.

“…the group also wants the IRS to determine whether the nonprofit ADF is risking its own tax-exempt status by organizing an “inappropriate, unethical and illegal” series of political endorsements. “As religious leaders, we have grave concerns about the ethical implications of soliciting and organizing churches to violate core principles of our society,” the clergy wrote…”

Somehow I don’t think this will dissuade the ADF, or the participating churches, from going forward. So we may soon see the beginning of an epic legal battle over whether a church or non-profit can engage directly in partisan politics*. If the ADF were to be ultimately successful, we would see a drastically changed political landscape. You thought religious pandering and the influence of evangelical leaders were bad this election cycle? Wait till politicians strive to get the endorsements of whole churches or denominations. It certainly won’t do any favors to religious minorities, and we may soon see the re-emergence of the fanatical (and tax-deductible) blacklisting organizations that Lyndon Johnson once sought to disempower.

For links to official Pulpit Freedom Sunday documents, check out this post by the TaxProf Blog.

* While non-profits can’t endorse a politician from the pulpit, they can endorse ballot initiatives and other non-partisan political issues. Clergy can also endorse politicians as private individuals.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Julie

    As a Pagan tax professional, let me put this in context:Most Pagans practice/celebrate in small circles or covens, and very few of those have registered for tax-exempt status. It took a court case to get Wicca qualified as a “church” for this purpose, and I’m not sure that non-Wiccan Pagans qualify even today.So, many of us may not be all that aware of the extent to which the government subsidizes churches. Here’s how this works: If you give your circle $100, it costs you $100, and your circle gets $100. However, if you belong to a tax-exempt church (and you’re in a 25% tax bracket), you give your church $100, it costs you $75, and your church gets $100. The other $25 comes off of your taxes, so it’s subsidized by the government.(YMMV, of course…every tax return is different. That’s a middle-class tax bracket.) Same donation, very different result.So the government is subsidizing churches to the extent of their donors’ tax brackets. This also puts the government in the position of qualifying churches for this subsidy.Individuals are not tax-exempt, and can endorse any candidate they wish, so long as they don’t pretend to represent a tax-exempt organization. Non-tax-exempt churches can also endorse any candidate they wish. This restriction applies only to organizations which have applied for this particular tax subsidy. The richer the members, the greater the subsidy, and your circle probably doesn’t get much at all, even if it’s registered. Political organizations, including most (but not all) major environmental groups, are not tax-exempt. Your $100 check to the Sierra Club does not get you that $25 tax reduction, any more than your check to the Obama (or McCain) campaign. (If you claimed it, it will be disallowed if you’re audited.)The upshot of this should be apparent by now: the churches who get the most tax-free money would be at a big advantage compared to those who get less, and even to political organizations.

  • THE Michael

    That would in effect turn this country (finally, it seems) into BAPTIST PAX AMERICANA, and I would have to resign from the club. But how long would Canada, or ANY nation, stand against this new Rome?

  • Jacqueline

    Thank you, Julie. Done much better than I ever could. I think it would be worth reposting this to the other comment board attached to this posting, the ignorance over there needs to be addressed. It’s rather shocking.

  • Robin Edgar

    “But how long would Canada, or ANY nation, stand against this new Rome?”Longer than you might think. . . After all, Canada and other nations have stood against a variety of other American political or religious stances for decades if nmot centuries.