Paul L. Caron

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pastors to Challenge Ban on Political Activity by Endorsing Candidates From Pulpit on Sept. 28

Wall Street Journal:  Pastors May Defy IRS Gag Rule; Legal Group Urges Ministers to Preach About Candidates, by Suzanne Sataline:

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.

For more details from the Alliance Defense Fund, see

For an opposing view, see Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Americans United Condemns Religious Right Plot To Politicize Pulpits

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The left wing colleges and universities are non-profit and tax exempt.

But they seem to have a political agenda.

Posted by: paulc | May 13, 2008 8:00:59 PM


You appear to accept that the Constitution says nothing about exempting churches from federal income taxation in the first place. End of discussion. See 16th Amendment.

And to be clear, I can conceive of extreme hypotheticals where a federal taxing statute that deliberately and oppressively targeted churches might be subject to a Free Exercise Clause challenge. Fortunately there seems to be little or no possibility that our elected representatives would ever try anything so stupid.

Posted by: Jake | May 12, 2008 7:44:21 PM

I find it interesting that the first amendment bumps up against the 16th amendment. Normally the law uses prescedent, but since the 16th Amendment was passes over the fist...

Currently the income tax only applies when the minister takes his salary out of the church. With a loss of exempt status for the church, caused by the preaching from the pulpit by a taxed individual, the tax would also be levied against donations coming in. Consider a church manager who hires an employee, who then recommends a candidate from the pulpit, and is fired for it. Does the church then lose its exempt status?

Posted by: Don Meaker | May 12, 2008 9:34:04 AM

Personally, I think that pastors should be able to advocate candidates from the pulpit if they so wish. I also think that any pastor who does so is serving the congregation poorly.

Posted by: K. Johnson | May 12, 2008 9:00:39 AM

Ummm... church employees aren't tax exempt. I know, because I am one. So is my Dad. He has to file as "self-employed," which is a big pain. Fortunately, my church-employee status is not full-time like his, so I can file regularly.

Posted by: John S. | May 12, 2008 5:18:39 AM

I agree wholeheartedly with Buzz. Congress does not need to bestow tax exemption on any church, and pastors enjoy many tax free allowances that do not need to be granted either.

Let them test the waters by all means, but let them understand that this will begin the long overdue process of removing tax exemptions for all churches and their employees.

Posted by: stushie | May 11, 2008 9:20:25 PM

Seems to me that they should have been auditing the churches that Kerry spoke at in 2004 as well as the ones that the candidates spoke at this time. In the case of the black churches, seems like the dem candidates have almost all spoken in the churches. I think they should audit them all. Start with the church that Rev Wright runs in Chicago.

Posted by: dick | May 11, 2008 8:58:09 PM

One thing I have never quite understood, why is it that churches are not allowed to be "political" under these non-profit IRS rules.But unions,such as SEIU are allowed the same non-profit status,AND allowed to endorse and make very,very large donations to candidates?

Posted by: flicka47 | May 11, 2008 8:57:04 PM


Isn't there a point where the gentle nudge of a tax benefit becomes overly burdensome of the free exercise clause? (Just play D.A. here...I agree with ya.)

Posted by: mox | May 11, 2008 7:48:29 PM

What hasn't been tested is whether or not a preacher's advocacy violates the law.

ADF will argue that the statement of a preacher is not political activity by the church as a legal entity.

Posted by: frissell | May 11, 2008 6:54:21 PM

So, unions aren't non-profit? So who gets the dough?
Good thing most of them are for Government employees,


Posted by: mous, anony | May 11, 2008 6:23:56 PM

The IRS should be busy already with liberal churches. Dems regularly campaign in churches. How many photos exist of Gore, Kerry, the Clintons, Obama giving speeches on Sundays at churches across the US? Too many to count. Double standards at play here, as usual.

Posted by: inmypajamas | May 11, 2008 6:18:54 PM

When you say:
"By conditioning the exemption on churches staying out of politics, Congress has not violated the Free Exercise Clause.", is it because you say so?

Most ridiculous statement of the week ( and it's just starting . . .)

Posted by: Brent | May 11, 2008 5:49:52 PM

Silly pastors. They should know that "endorsing" candidates from the pulpit won't fly. Recent events would seem to indicate that the most effective political activity a pastor could take would be to threaten anyone who votes against their candidate with violence.

Posted by: CarlF | May 11, 2008 5:44:04 PM

Buzz is correct. And that means the income tax was a bad idea.

Posted by: bc | May 11, 2008 5:40:53 PM

I love this pull their TE status and watch the money flow to the federal coffers.

Posted by: Sandy P | May 11, 2008 5:29:39 PM

Pope John Paul II, as the Iron Curtain fell, refused to encourage the Church in Poland to take direct involvement in politics. He saw clearly that priests and bishops who swell their heads by advocating for candidates, even great candidates, will become less effective as priests, that is, the floor of the Church upon which the rest of us walk. Humility and political candidate endorsements don't go together for long, if at all.

Posted by: Tertium Quid | May 11, 2008 5:26:46 PM

Silly argument. The Constitution does not mandate that churches be exempt from federal income taxation in the first place. Congress provided the exemption as a matter of legislative grace (or perhaps just good public policy with which a majority of the electorate agree). By conditioning the exemption on churches staying out of politics, Congress has not violated the Free Exercise Clause.

Posted by: Jake | May 11, 2008 5:01:20 PM

Hasnt both Clinton and Obama already generated enough test cases on this? Everytime you turn around, on or both are at the pulpit of a church.

Posted by: buzz | May 11, 2008 4:38:08 PM