A conservative legal-advocacy group is enlisting ministers to use their pulpits to preach about election candidates this September, defying a tax law that bars churches from engaging in politics.
Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., nonprofit, is hoping at least one sermon will prompt the IRS to investigate, sparking a court battle that could get the tax provision declared unconstitutional. Alliance lawyers represent churches in disputes with the IRS over alleged partisan activity.
The action marks the latest attempt by a conservative organization to help clergy harness their congregations to sway elections. The protest is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 28, a little more than a month before the general election, in a year when religious concerns and preachers have been a regular part of the political debate. ...
The section of the tax code barring nonprofits from intervening in political campaigns has long frustrated clergy. Many ministers consider the provision an inappropriate government intrusion, blocking the duty of clergy to advise congregants.
Alliance fund staff hopes 40 or 50 houses of worship will take part in the action, including clerics from liberal-leaning congregations. About 80 ministers have expressed interest, including one Catholic priest, says Erik Stanley, the Alliance's senior legal counsel. ...
In 1954, Congress made it illegal for nonprofits, including churches, to endorse or publicly oppose political candidates or to intervene in candidates' elections, although they are free to take sides on issues. Only one church has challenged this, unsuccessfully. The U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled in 2000 that the IRS didn't violate constitutional rights when it revoked the tax-exempt status of Branch Ministries of Binghamton, N.Y., which had bought newspaper ads opposing Bill Clinton's candidacy.
Some legal scholars are hoping for a new test case. Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, says a church might make a successful claim that the federal government is burdening the free exercise of religion and cannot do so without a compelling state interest.