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.