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Tilting at Windmills

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September 8, 2008

ADF PUSHES CHURCH-ELECTION SCHEME.... Federal tax law, as it relates to tax-exempt religious ministries, is pretty clear -- houses of worship may not legally intervene in political campaigns, either in support of or opposition to a candidate or a party. Those who violate the law run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. With some regularity, the IRS reminds houses of worship about this, warning them about the dangers of ignoring the law.

A prominent conservative legal-advocacy group, however, has an idea: conservative churches should ignore the law -- and in the process, test the law -- on purpose.

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.

The effort by the Arizona-based legal consortium is designed to trigger an IRS investigation that ADF lawyers would then challenge in federal court. The ultimate goal is to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

Every year, as candidates seek to curry favor from religious leaders, a handful of churches cross the legal line and intervene in campaigns. The ADF plan is something else entirely -- the group is recruiting pastors who will deliberately violate the law, invite IRS punishment, and then take the whole issue to court in order to challenge the law itself.

At first blush, the ADF argument may sound compelling. If a church wants to endorse a candidate, it's the church's business, right? If congregations don't like it, they can go to another church. If a pastor passes the collection plate for John McCain during Sunday services, church members can contribute or not contribute. This isn't, the argument goes, any of the government's business.

But this falls apart pretty quickly. Tax law doesn't stifle free speech; it applies conditions to tax exemptions.

Non-profit organizations receive a tax exemption because their work is charitable, educational or religious. But the benefit comes with conditions, most notably a requirement that tax-exempt organizations refrain from involvement in partisan politics. Since tax-exempt groups are supposed to work for the public good, not spend their time and money trying to elect or defeat candidates, it's hardly unreasonable.

If the rule were eliminated, there'd be a new loophole in campaign finance law -- people could donate to a church's partisan political efforts and the contribution would be tax deductible.

But what if some ministries believe partisan political work is absolutely necessary? They're in luck -- they have every legal right to give up their tax exemption and create an explicitly partisan organization, such as a PAC. Current law simply limits groups from being both tax-exempt ministries and engaging in partisan politics.

ADF, meanwhile, not only wants to let ministries have it both ways, it also wants these ministries to take a huge risk with no reward -- break the law, help partisan candidates, and risk IRS penalty. Why? Because the Alliance Defense Fund, a multimillion-dollar right-wing legal consortium, has a culture-war experiment it's anxious to try out.

Dozens of pastors have reportedly expressed interest in the ADF scheme, and are willing to serve as guinea pigs. We'll see how many go through with it in three weeks.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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I think there is a pattern emerging with the Rebublican strategy for 2008. Break every election law possible and by the time anything is done about it, they will be in power and issue pardons.

Posted by: mbhuff on September 8, 2008 at 8:08 AM | PERMALINK

Are Republicans trying to start religious wars in America?

The reason the founders separated church and state was not to forward some starry eyed ideal, it was to keep people from killing each other or political power in the name of religion. The Republicans seem to have forgotten that truth.

Never forget organized religion is often intolerant, and very divisive. It is hard to argue policy disputes with people who believe with every fiber of their being that they are on a mission from God.

Posted by: Ron Byers on September 8, 2008 at 8:12 AM | PERMALINK

"over" not "or"

Posted by: Ron Byers on September 8, 2008 at 8:14 AM | PERMALINK

I hope they get their heads handed to them on a silver platter.

Posted by: just bill on September 8, 2008 at 8:14 AM | PERMALINK

Time for volunteers to crank up the hidden video cameras.

Posted by: BuzzMon on September 8, 2008 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

Why are houses of worship tax exempt anyway? I think someone needs to challenge that while they're in court anyway.

Posted by: Freedom Fry on September 8, 2008 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

"......it also wants these ministries to take a huge risk with no reward....."

What huge risk? The likely outcome should they lose is some sort of paltry fine for each and a very friendly reminder not to try it again. Since there are no limits on the amount of money you can give a church reimbursements for the fines would be forthcoming. Lots of upside if they win, or even if they lose, for the attendant publicity would flood conservative 527 coffers with money for the 2010 midterms. Smart politics. Something Democrats are congenitally incapable of practicing.

Posted by: steve duncan on September 8, 2008 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

Ron Byers said:
The reason the founders separated church and state was not to forward some starry eyed ideal, it was to keep people from killing each other or political power in the name of religion.

The correspondence of the Founding Fathers isn't really my area of knowledge. But the original intention of the concept of separation of church and state, which started with the Cluniac Reforms in the 9th and 10th centuries, was to protect the church from being influenced by secular powers.

Throughout history, whenever a church became part of the ruling power structure, the church became corrupt and it's message was distorted. It happened in the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, with married Popes and illiterate bishops. Today we see it with Islam being distorted by extremists and Christianity distorted by "Christian conservatives" like James Dobson and Pat Robertson.

Posted by: SteveT on September 8, 2008 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

If the IRS pounces pre-election, that will be bad.
The day after the election day the IRS should (but never will) just revoke their tax exempt status pro-rata from the day the spoke to the end of the year.

Posted by: joyzeeboy on September 8, 2008 at 8:35 AM | PERMALINK

Too bad there aren't similar laws for broadcasting companies. NBC has effectively silenced Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews for the duration of the elections, according to the NY Times. Apparently this was done at the behest of the Republican party and/or as a result of Palin's guaranteed kidglove treatment by ABC prior to her upcoming interview there. They don't have to worry about ballot boxes this time; they're leaning on the media.

Posted by: impartial on September 8, 2008 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

I have often advocated that we eliminate the religious/church exemption as applied to an entire organization; to be replaced with a system similar to what is available to other individuals and corporations and be allowed itemized exemptions or deductions for charitable or educational work. Because the exemption/deduction would no longer be automatic, I think you would see a lot more attention paid to ensure the expenses are in fact charitable, itemization would make everything auditable, and the whole system less susceptible to this sort of abuse.

Posted by: MLE on September 8, 2008 at 8:37 AM | PERMALINK

This is a signal to all religious right pastors to electioneer from the pulpit, consequences be damned. It will be the final push for low information voters to forget about the economy and vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin.

The Washington Post editorials yesterday were muzzled and were all on the subject of family values in this election. Thus, you had a writer like David Ignatius instructed about how much fun it will be to watch the families in this election while attempting to slip in one sentence that Sarah Palin is breathtakingly unqualified.

Olbermann and Matthews were demoted, a clear signal (similar to the runup to the Iraq war) that any media not towing the right wing line will be punished with adverse career consequences. I would not be surprised if Steve Benen is dropped from CBS News.

The GOP has no intention of giving up power and they have made sure that all low information voters will be propagandized into voting for the GOP. Know fear.

Posted by: Mary on September 8, 2008 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

last week there was a story about the respective convention "bounces" between the two candidates. I find it interesting that from Monday last week to Monday this week McChameleon's bounce is similar to BO, which means that Sarah Painful has made no difference to the old bum's numbers. His numbers are still not breaking beyond 47%. This is good because it means BO is still favoured to win.

Now the key for BO is to ride the waves Painful has caused to the trail for another month. Once people get to know her, I doubt there'll be as impressed as the old farts in McChameleon's campaign had hoped for.

Posted by: zie on September 8, 2008 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

Not knowing anything, I think your wrong SteveT. According to your comment, the Clunaic Reforms, whatever they are, started centuries before the enlightenment. The enlightenment was not about protecting churches, Ron Byers is correct and without the enlightenment, God(ha ha) knows what the founding fathers would have come up with. Something the thugs could get into more, no doubt.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on September 8, 2008 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

Yet another argument for abolishing the corporate income tax, and raising taxes on returns to capital for individuals to replace it. Oh, and while we're at it, end property tax exemptions for non-profits. That would solve a lot of state/local funding problems tied to the fall in real estate values.

Posted by: jayackroyd on September 8, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Let me tell ya, if the Churches in rural areas start preaching hellfire and brimstone to the LIV's, we could be in trouble. There's no way Bubba at the 1st Baptist Bar and Grill is going to vote for his own interests (Obama) if the preacher man tells him he'll go to hell.

Posted by: on September 8, 2008 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

"This kind of stuff has been going on for years in liberal churches and African American churches. Apparently the progressives have no problem with that angle." -- orwell

Yeah, you're right about that. You see, Jesus was a liberal, so naturally liberal/progressive churches will be preaching his gospel, which democrats are far more in tune with than these "Gospel of Wealth" republican churches, and places like I mentioned above, the 1st Baptist Bar and Grill (see redneck, ignorant, believe in the rapture which is a complete figment of someone's imagination and never mentioned in the Bible).

Posted by: citizen_pain on September 8, 2008 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

Orwell, STFU. There has been only ONE CHURCH targeted by the IRS since Bush took office and it wasn't an evangelical church, where politicking from the pulpit is the norm. No, instead the problem was with an Episcopal church, which committed the cardinal sin of pointing out where Jesus would stand on the various issue positions offered up by Bush and Kerry, while explicitly stating in the sermon that no endorsement of either candidate was being made, that parishoners were to vote their conscience.

Ultimately, the IRS dropped its claim, since there was no "there" there. Obviously the intent was to let churches of all stripes know that "politicking from the pulpit" was only acceptable if it included an endorsement of George Bush or the Republican Party.

Just like a fundie "victim" to screech about how they're "bein' oppressed" by laws that are used to oppress others, while they continue to break the law. You, sir, are a lying ass.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 8, 2008 at 9:06 AM | PERMALINK

Why limit the current plan to churches?

I propose that the following offer be made to every citizen: In return for tax exempt status -- free from personal income, property and estate taxes, the citizen agrees to give up his or her right to vote, and forswears taking any position on a political or legislative issue. Just be a good citizen, obey the law and do good, and leave the politicking to others. In return, a financial windfall.

Just like churches, once citizens start get involved in politicking, there is a very high likelihood that messy and uncomfortable situations will result. Plus, some citizens have opinions that are not correct, or logically and rationally supported.

We would be appalled if the government offered that deal to citizens. We would be appalled if the government taxed political activity. But a tax exemption is a reverse tax, a bribe by another name.

The current system bribes all organizations dedicated to the public good and to personal altruism to stay out of politics. The organizations with the largest day to day popular base are kept politically silent. No wonder our political system is weak, corrupt and dominated by careerists.

We should not be confused by the fact that our political opponents think that they would gain from abolishing the current system. They happen to be right in principle, and I am confident that whatever benefit the right gets from a reform will be more than matched by the benefit that the progressive movement will get as well.

Posted by: tom in MA on September 8, 2008 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

The question is: Do taxes imposed on a church, or the censorship of political speech in the church, prohibit the free exercise of religion?

It's a reasonable question.

Posted by: pedestrian on September 8, 2008 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

Didn't the Supreme Court settle this issue unanimously when they ruled that Yale couldn't bar military recruiters from campus while at the same time accepting federal funding? It would seem to me that the principle is precisely the same.

Posted by: John on September 8, 2008 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

Properly, the courts should find tax exemption of churches themselves unconstitutional and either revoke the tax break or extend it to secular non-political charities as well.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on September 8, 2008 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

This refers to PROPERTY tax exemption.
This courtesy is not extended to non-profits that don't base their work on their interpretation of God's will.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on September 8, 2008 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

pedestrian -- very good question. Any linkage between taxes and speech in churches involves a restriction on the free exercise of religion. That is true whether taxes are paid, or not paid. Why? Because it gives a governmental body -- the IRS -- the power to determine what is "religious" or "political". They should not have the power to determine that for me.
Was MLK, Jr. "religious" or "political"? Should the IRS be the one to decide?
In fact, are "religious" and "political" two separate realms at all? I don't think that anyone could tell me where one ends and the other begins.
Churches should be either tax-exempt or not tax-exempt -- all of them. But they should not have to conform to certain speech rules to get that tax-exemption -- otherwise, the government is telling them what to say and how to interact with the rest of society -- in short, interfering with the free exercise of religion.

Posted by: Tom in MA on September 8, 2008 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

Looks like there's a mainstream ministers planning to take these blowahrds on.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A group of mostly mainline Protestant ministers says the Internal Revenue Service must keep a restriction against politics in the pulpit.

The Rev. Eric Williams, a minister with the liberal United Church of Christ, planned to file a complaint with the IRS Monday against the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal organization based in Arizona that is challenging the restriction as unconstitutional.

The conservative group aims to allow pastors to endorse or oppose political candidates.

But Williams said such a move would jeopardize the historic separation of church and state in the United States and called the effort the work of extremists.

The Alliance Defense Fund has enlisted ministers around the country to invite investigations by the IRS by giving political sermons Sept. 28, a day the group has dubbed "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." It says it will represent any churches targeted by the IRS in lawsuits against the government.

The group argues that politics and preaching freely mixed for much of the nation's history. That ended in 1954 with the IRS restriction against endorsing or opposing a candidate. Churches found in violation of that rule could lose their tax-exempt status.

Through the initiative, the conservative group "seeks to restore the right of each pastor to speak Scriptural truth from the pulpit about moral, social, governmental, and other issues without fear of losing his church's tax exempt status," according to defense fund documents explaining the process.

IRS spokesman Chris Kerns said the agency had no comment.

Williams helped organize a similar complaint against two pastors in 2006, alleging they were violating the IRS restriction by support for GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell that amounted to a political endorsement.

The complaint that Williams' group planned to file Monday will ask the IRS to stop the Alliance Defense Fund from signing up churches to violate the federal restriction.

The group also wants the IRS to investigate whether the Pulpit Initiative is itself illegal, putting the defense fund's tax exempt status in jeopardy. And it wants the IRS to investigate the tax consequences for individuals or groups who may have donated money to the defense fund.

In a letter Wednesday, Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the defense fund, asked Williams and the head of the United Church of Christ in Ohio to reconsider their action.

Stanley reminded them of an IRS investigation of the United Church of Christ earlier this year over allegations the denomination violated IRS rules when it hosted Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at its convention in Hartford, Conn., in 2007.

In the that case, the tax agency ultimately found no violations had occurred.

Posted by: fred on September 8, 2008 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

When our nation was founded, the common religious experience was either a monarchy-endorsed church whose members had great privileges (The Church of England for example) or a dissenting group whose members had been denied rights or been persecuted on the basis of their religion (The Society of Friends or Roman Catholics in England).

By establishing religious freedom rather than establishing an official religion, the founders not only diminished greatly the possibily of religion-based warfare, but also granted the greatest freedom in the area no governing authority could control -- the conscience. As a result, American religious life is more diverse and more lively than that in almost any other country. It's a free market!

Those among us who do not practice a religion do well to remember that we will not be arrested for it. If America had an established official religion and you were not part of it, that might be a real possibility.

The ADF and these local pastors are being foolish to test the "no endorsements - no taxes" tradeoff. While I have no idea how they would rule, a case will surely make it all the way to the Supreme Court one day. Do they really want to take the risk that their church's income would be taxed? And for all the symbolism of challenging "big government," aren't these the same people who want to reduce taxes? Would their members really approve if the outcome of this challenge to "big government" is that the donations of their members are no longer tax deductible?

They really ought to think about that prospect. But, then, these are fundamentalists. Thinking is not one of their skill sets.

Posted by: revchicoucc on September 8, 2008 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

Well the ADF is scourge and we should hardly be surprised that they are exploring such strategies.

I think they are right to believe the current Supreme Court will support their claims, dubious though they seem to the rest of us (read: thoughtful liberals).

But liberals also use the courts to press their arguments. What's good for the goose is good for the gander and we can hardly be surprised.

Posted by: Stacy on September 8, 2008 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

"Throughout history, whenever a church became part of the ruling power structure, the church became corrupt and it's message was distorted."

Um, throughout history which I have personally observed, a church does not need to become part of the ruling power structure in order to become corrupt and it's message distorted.

Posted by: CalGal on September 8, 2008 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

Go to a conservative church and shout down the priests when they endorse political candidates from their pulpits. Leftist orgs should send out groups to attend the big box conservative nondenominational churches and be prepared to disrupt services if the priests decide to use their sermons as poltical advocacy.

At my spouse's nondenominational big box church right before the election in 2006, Sen. Kyl
showed up and was given an introduction by the priest. Kyl is not a member of that church. I was not there, but it is one of the few times I wish I had gone to church so that I could have called Kyl a mass murderer in front of hundreds of people.

Posted by: Brojo on September 8, 2008 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

"The likely outcome should they lose is some sort of paltry fine for each and a very friendly reminder not to try it again"

Well, it seems to me that losing one's tax-exempt status could be much more costly than that. It could mean, even, that the states and cities could tax the PROPERTY of the church (if they aren't federally tax-exempt, a strong case holds that all other tax exemptions should also fall). Big windfall for the local schools, highways, and such, not to mention the income and other federal taxes they'd have to pay.

I assume the law doesn't say if you lose your exemption on Monday, you can get it back by Friday, no? You'd have to prove that your actions no longer tend toward politicization of the church, and abstaining from promoting one party over another for a week or two wouldn't be enough.

That is, if the IRS were doing its job.

In some ways, this is farcical, and in other ways, frightening. But in most ways, essentially stupid on the part of this organization. I hope they spend a ton of money and then lose. In fact, I'll pray for that happenstance.


Posted by: Ed Drone on September 8, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK
Properly, the courts should find tax exemption of churches themselves unconstitutional and either revoke the tax break or extend it to secular non-political charities as well.

Um, the federal tax exemption of churches is a subset of the general tax exemption of 501(c)(3) non-profits, and churches are in some respects already more limited than other 501(c)(3) non-profits in terms of what they can do politically; so the problem you want corrected is not real, and indeed is close to the opposite of the real situation.

Posted by: cmdicely on September 8, 2008 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

If anyone is inclined to think that electing a Democratic White House and Congress will stop the neo-conservative/christian right juggernaut, think again. They have thousands of ways to change the system, and it is often easier to change it from the outside.

Posted by: SteveB on September 8, 2008 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

I am quite ready to take up arms to keep ecclesiastical morons from sublimating my rights. This is what a just god would want.

Posted by: Lance on September 12, 2008 at 4:45 AM | PERMALINK

I am fully aware. If a holy war comes to America I will rear my Machete of vengeance and strike down those that cry messiah in the streets.

Posted by: Lance on September 12, 2008 at 4:59 AM | PERMALINK



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