Vol. 10, No. 7 email@example.com www.thespiritualherald.org July 2011 © 2011 Eastern Tsalagi Publishing Co.
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Clergy Set to Defy IRS Ban on Endorsements
By Megan Larkin
NEW YORK--More than 100 clergy are expected to openly challenge the IRS ban on endorsing political candidates in the fall in the midst of the Presidential election campaign.
According to the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the protest is scheduled to take place in pulpits across the country on Sunday, October 2.
The “Freedom Pulpit Sunday” confrontation will take head-on the Internal Revenue Service's regulation that churches or pastors who endorse political candidates face loss of the church's tax-exempt status.
“We challenge the IRS to remove a church's tax-exempt status so we can get into court and get the rule declared unconstitutional,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley told The Spiritual Herald in an exclusive interview.
The ADF, which is organizing and backing the demonstration, holds that churches have the right of political activity under the First Amendment free speech guarantee and the Constitution's Establishment clause stating that Congress make no laws respecting the establishment of religion or its free exercise.
“Pastors must be and are free to state their beliefs without interference from the IRS or anyone,” Stanley declared. “The IRS has the regulation but does not act on it. We cannot sue the IRS or get into court unless the IRS enforces that ban on a pastor.”
Indeed, the ADF organized “Freedom Pulpit Sundays” in 2008, when 33 pastors endorsed candidates, in 2009 when 84 pastors did it, and in 2010 when about 100 endorsed candidates from their pulpits.
The October 2nd Freedom Sunday in the hottest presidential election campaign time leading to the November election is expected to include more than 100 pastors from 15 to 20 denominations, Stanley said.
Pastors at the previous Freedom Sundays recorded their endorsement sermons on Videos or CDs and sent them to the IRS, Stanley said.
“Not one of them heard anything back," he said.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State also complained to the IRS without success.
The IRS says it did remove tax-exempt status from Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network for 1986-87 for supporting Robertson’s presidential bid, and Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour for the same years for diverting money to a political action committee.
And New York Rev. Floyd Flake, pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church was asked to sign documents stating that he would not intervene in election campaigns after he endorsed presidential candidate Al Gore from the pulpit in 2000.
In 2004, the IRS assigned agents to oversee a new project called the Political Activity Compliance Initiative (PACI) to ensure compliance with the law, and issued warnings to 42 churches found to have violated the law. In 2006 it followed up with warnings not to violate the law again.
But in 2008, the first Freedom Pulpit Sunday burst anew from 33 churches and according to Stanley of ADF, nothing has happened since. Pastor Paul Blair of the Fairview Baptist Church, Edmonton, Oklahoma, did it again in 2010, endorsing John McCain, along with about 100 other ministers, and sent a video of it to the IRS, still without reaction.
“There is an attempt to overturn the IRS regulation or to attack it in court,” said Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington. “I think it’s a lot of leap and not much light.”
He cited the Alliance Defense Fund's provoking the IRS "and sparking a case that they can take into the courts." But he said the matter has already been settled by the court stemming from the 1992 Presidential election where a church told people not to vote for Bill Clinton.
"Their tax exempt status was revoked and they were unable to get it back in court. The federal appeals court upheld the legality of the IRS regulation."
The case, however, did not reach the Supreme Court and a final ruling. "The groups that brought it chose not to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court probably because they were afraid they’d lose again so the Supreme Court hasn’t definitively ruled on this. But the ruling at the lower court was 3 to 0, a strong opinion. We have no reason to believe that the Supreme Court would rule differently.
"Most Americans don’t want their churches to be political in the partisan sense," he said. "In certain churches people are comfortable hearing talk about political issues whether from the right or the left, but people do draw the line at endorsement of candidates.
"That is where people start to get uncomfortable. The polls show that people just don’t see churches as vehicles for promotion of candidacy or to attack a candidate. That’s another reason why there is resistance to change because that is not what people go to church for. They go for spiritual reasons or to connect with God, not to get instructions about who to vote for or against."
Trying to silence pastors about political opinions has apparently become a cat-and-mouse game, or a “chicken” contest that the IRS is reluctant to play. The law is clear, but so is the opposition to it from many churches.
"The (church) view has not been held to have legal merit in a society where there is church and state separation," Pennsylvania Law School Professor Anita L. Allen said. "There is no privilege given to churches as such although there is obviously the first amendment right to religious freedom which gives churches the ability to exist and express their own professions and values.
"If you want to be a part of the tax system, which these organizations are since they are tax exempt, then you have to follow the rules.
"Most constitutional law experts will tell you that it is simply not a plausible position for a church to take today to say that we shouldn’t be restricted by government at all. That’s just not a viable position in our American democracy.
"People take the extreme position they don’t want to have any government regulations because they are religious. That’s just not a position that has had any credibility in our society.
"This business about the endorsement of candidates is the same as saying that the restriction applies because you are receiving a tax benefit because you are not set up to be in politics. You are set up to be doing some public good-- feeding the poor or helping the hungry or educating people or providing advocacy for people in need."
It's a curious sort of stand-off, some say.
"They’ve got a serious argument but it's very hard to know what the courts would do with it," commented Law Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "I think the IRS is afraid to litigate. They haven’t brought many cases. They’ve tried to jawbone people into compliance with what they say is educating people.
"Some of the implications of this regulation are plainly constitutional," he noted. "The basic rule is political work has to be paid for with money that’s been taxed. If you’ve made a political contribution to a party or candidate you don’t get a tax reduction for that.
"If non-profits could do politics with money that had been tax deducted when it was contributed they’d have a huge advantage over everybody else. The basic rule that you can’t spend tax-exempt money on politics is constitutional.
"Telling ministers what they can and cannot give sermons about seems to me to be unconstitutional. Whether the courts can say that or not is anybody’s guess but that is the argument."
There is clergy opposition, too.
"I seriously believe that clergy should not be endorsing candidates," declared Rev. Dr. Richard H. Cobble, president of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta. "Right now in this country we have a battle of hatred and divisiveness that is going on because there is religious ideology often involved in a lot of the issues.
"The clergy ought to remain neutral whereas they become the prophetic voice for dealing with the issues," he suggested. "When this nation was formed the people who left England left because of religious repression and involvement of clergy or religious factions in with the different authority of government. They came to this country and were able to formulate the separation of church and state.
"I teach at St. Leo’s University and I am constantly reminding the students that we must do something about religious tolerance where everybody will become involved and we will not use religion to pit one group against another group.
"In terms of clergy or non-profits endorsing candidates they should maintain the separation of church and state in order to have the prophetic voice and have a clear field of dealing with the issues.
"Right now we have problems with various factions endorsing candidates and we had a stalemate in the country because of those standings. The best way we can move beyond that is to make clear the challenge, when they’re doing right or wrong, and encourage them to do right."
"Of course those opponents are using the first amendment as another tactic to be able to tackle the consciousness of those individuals who revere the constitution. It’s just another tactic to create hate and divisiveness in this country and we need to get away from that.
"If we don’t find ways to bring our folks together or come to a meeting of the minds, we are going to be led in the ways that the great Roman Empire was led to--destruction."
"If we want to remain the great country that we started out to be even despite the scar of slavery among the US, if we’re going to be a great nation we must truly become the melting pot for all people."