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September 29, 2008

FAR-RIGHT GROUP EXECUTES 'PULPIT FREEDOM SUNDAY'.... Following up on an item from a few weeks ago, 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.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a prominent far-right legal-advocacy group, came up with a plan -- convince conservative Christian pastors to break the law, on purpose, invite IRS punishment, and then take the whole issue to court in order to challenge the law itself.

They called the plan "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which was held yesterday in 33 churches across the country.

Defying a federal law that prohibits U.S. clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an evangelical Christian minister told his congregation Sunday that voting for Sen. Barack Obama would be evidence of "severe moral schizophrenia."

The Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee's positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist "in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures." Johnson showed slides contrasting the candidates' views but stopped short of endorsing Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.

Johnson and 32 other pastors across the country set out Sunday to break the rules, hoping to generate a legal battle that will prompt federal courts to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

The ministers contend they have a constitutional right to advise their worshipers how to vote. As Johnson put it during a break between sermons, "The point that the IRS says you can't do it, I'm saying you're wrong."

At first blush, this 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.

These 33 churches -- chosen, the ADF said, in part for "strategic criteria related to litigation" -- are religious right guinea pigs. The next step will be formal complaints filed against the ministries, which I suspect will happen sometime this morning, followed by IRS investigations.

Often, the IRS backs off if church leaders apologize and promise not to do it again. Given the goal of this project, that's not going to happen. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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Franky, I think the right-wing churches should be commended and sent a huge amount of gratitude for this stunt. At a time when the nation is having to bailout Wall Street, it is quite kind of right-wing churches to volunteer to give up their tax exempt status. The nation certainly needs the revenue and a whole new stream has emerged.

It should be interesting to hear a church claim that their freedom of speech was denied when they were only asked to follow the rules of a tax category that they chose, and was not mandatory. Regardless, thank your local megachurch for offering to chip in their fair share this fiscal year. Perhaps a hearty God Bless You would even be in order here.

Posted by: ashton on September 29, 2008 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

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.

They're in even more luck than that. A pastor who thinks it would be a great idea to elect John McCain can traverse his neighborhood saying so. He just can't do it in his capacity as pastor. His free speech is not being "stifled" when he can say anything he wants on his own time.

Posted by: Thrax on September 29, 2008 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

If they want to stage political rallies from the pulpit, they can do so AND have their tax status revoked. Cough it up Pastor- their will be an IRS agent at the end of the pew holding a collection plate. Oh yeah, and a little thing called back taxes.
The fact that this is from Georgia surprises me not in the least.

Posted by: RememberNovember on September 29, 2008 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

I absolutely agree - if churches want to promote candidates that's fine with me. I don't go to church anyway. But they have to voluntarily give up tax exemptions to do so. As long as they do that, I'm fine with it.

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on September 29, 2008 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

if the rules of tax exemption are explained to the churches as simply as it's explained here ("you can say whatever you want on the pulpit, you just have to be willing to lose your exemption status, what's your choice") those churches will apologize tout suite.

Posted by: slappy magoo on September 29, 2008 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

I suspect the "strategic criteria related to litigation" that they used to pick the churches has to do with the pastors' IQ.

"Hey, why don't you go out yonder and see if there are really any mines in that there minefield? We'll sit over here and, uh, pray for you. That's a good boy."

Posted by: ericblair on September 29, 2008 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

What we are talking about here are legitimate churches that want to engage in political advocacy while still maintaining their tax free status. The rule is necessary so that obvious political advocacy groups don't simply declare themselves to be "religions" in order to qualify for these tax exemptions. I agree that within the Republican Party its hard to separate religion from politics, but some standards are necessary.

Posted by: Ted Frier on September 29, 2008 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

There's another tax rule they might run into that would get their attention - UBTI. The IRS lets churches go a long way with fundraisers & stuff that really amount to a business activity carried on for profit. If they hit a few of the megachurches with a 35% tax + penalties on their scams, it should get their attention fast.

Posted by: Downpuppy on September 29, 2008 at 9:06 AM | PERMALINK

Welcome to the Church of Having It Both Ways.

Posted by: Mustang Bobby on September 29, 2008 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

i'd love to see the IRS crawl up the collective asses of all these churches that are basically extensions of the Republican Party.

if they want to preach McCain, go right ahead--but as George Carlin said "If churches want to get so involved in government, let them pay their f**king admission price like everyone else!"

Posted by: rob! on September 29, 2008 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

Given the control of the judiciary that the right-wing has engineered over the past 30 years, including 4-1/2 justices on the SC, this gamble may in fact pay off. The strategic choices of churches has to do with shopping for the right federal courts to hear the cases, and to create conflicting rulings that will force a review by the SC.

I might actually consider joining a liberal church if my political contributions became tax-deductible. Of course the number of 'churches' that would spring up, should such a lamentable decision come down, would require the IRS to establish criteria for the institution of 'church'. Wouldn't that run a foul of the establishment clause? Oh, I forgot. The Consitution is just a piece of paper (thanks to the Decider).

Posted by: on September 29, 2008 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

The Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee's positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist "in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures."

Who wants to bet that Rev. Johnson made his presentation wearing clothes made from two or more different cloths (Leviticus 19:19), "in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures."

Posted by: SteveT on September 29, 2008 at 9:10 AM | PERMALINK

Often, the IRS backs off if church leaders apologize and promise not to do it again. Given the goal of this project, that's not going to happen. Stay tuned.

Heh. On NPR last week they interviewed one of these pastors that were participating in this little scheme to break the law. He was asked "so what if this doesn't work and you end up losing your tax exempt status?" He wasn't worried because "we'll just reapply the next day - churches automatically are tax exempt."

Oh the poor, poor fools. They should have hired their own lawyers instead of trusting the Alliance Defense Fund. Because this is reminding me so very much of the "Dover Trap" right now - there a school board got talked into breaking the law by a bunch of right-wing lawyers because they wanted to test the limits of the law. It backfired and the school board lost big time. This sounds like something similar - a bunch of right-wing ideologue lawyers so sure of themselves that they're willing to use other people's money as the guinea pig for their legal theories.

Here's hoping they get their tax exempt status yanked, but also get told that they can't have it back without doing some hefty penance of some kind. I don't know what the regulations are on normal non-profits losing their tax exempt status when they break the law like this - and whether they're ever able to regain it - but whatever it is it should apply to these churches equally. No "churches are automatically exempt" rules should trump the fact that these jokers broke the law, and will do it again if they aren't stiffly punished.

Posted by: NonyNony on September 29, 2008 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

It's getting more and more difficult to remain secular in the 21st century! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on September 29, 2008 at 9:14 AM | PERMALINK

While I'm in general agreement, I do wonder if somebody could address the issue of Black churches. Certainly this kind of issue - of churches becoming intertwined with political parties - is on a larger scale within the Republican Party, but don't a lot of Black churches do almost exactly the same thing with regard to the Democrats? I remember that Clinton was effectively buying up pastors in South Carolina as "consultants" to get their support. Is there a qualitative difference?

Posted by: John on September 29, 2008 at 9:16 AM | PERMALINK

The odd thing to me is that I bet the right wing christian leadership actually want the IRS crawling up the church's asses. They're trying to lay the groundwork for the next movement and the creation of boogeymen is a high priority.


To the nutjobs it will be socialists under the direction of Obama that come calling from the IRS to collect the bill.


Posted by: grinning cat on September 29, 2008 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK

"While I'm in general agreement, I do wonder if somebody could address the issue of Black churches"

That is a good point. My understanding of the provisions in the tax code is that a pastor may not use the pulpit for normal religious services to endorse a candidate. It does not restrict them from speaking about issues, it just may not be during a religious service or specifically for the purpose of endorsement.

Black churches serve two purposes in most areas. The first is as a community center and the second it is a church. This tends not to be the case which non-black churches. If it is done in a community center setting, defined as clearly not a religious service, the IRS tends to not get involved, although they still cannot endorse. While these churches have meetings to which politicians are invited, both parties are invited, but only one shows up. It may appear partisan if you see the meeting; however all parties are invited to attend. The partisan part is who actually accepted the invite.

Churches are allowed to speak about political issues and the churchs stand, although this too has been scrutinized by the IRS in recent years, especially if a church pastor gave a sermon that could be considered to be anti-war. The key factor is that they may not endorse one candidate or the other, or one party over the other.

I am not aware of any black churches that actually endorse one candidate over the other.

Posted by: ashton on September 29, 2008 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

It has about zero chance of being enacted, but I'd support removing the tax exemption from ALL churches, political or not. I don't particularly feel like subsidizing other people's delusions about Invisible Sky Daddy even when they aren't using it to force their ignorance down my throat.

Posted by: jimBOB on September 29, 2008 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

I suppose everyone at these churches already approves of mingling church and state. (Sharia, Christian-style!)

Otherwise, when clergy start spouting off on politics, I wonder what might happen if enough folks just passed the plate that week. When receipt are down due to a contemptuous congregation, will these blowhards start behaving themselves?

Give your check to a soup kitchen that week...

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on September 29, 2008 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

You quote: "The Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee's positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist "in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures.""

OK

What do Rev. Johnson's Scriptures say about divorce? About healing the sick? About loving our enemies? About wealth and the rich? About the least of those among us?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: CMcC on September 29, 2008 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

To me a church is no different than a movie theater, which is to say: a business. Both peddle fantastic stories, enormous, high-budget works of fiction, and occasional truth. That they are somehow tax-exempt has always puzzled me. That they are told not to endorse a specific candidate from the pulpit is unrealistic and therefore not worth getting hacked off about.

Posted by: chrenson on September 29, 2008 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

How does this rule apply to the Catholic Church? They have been saying for years that their parishioners may not vote for any candidate who supports Roe V Wade. Several bishops have announced that they would refuse communion to any politician who didn't support their anti-abortion agenda or any parishioner who votes for that candidate.

Posted by: Just Wondering on September 29, 2008 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

As I understand it you have to be very+- explicit to cross the line.

It's not OK for a preacher to say that your vote is important and you should vote for Godly people (like X) and not for sinners (like Y). Leave out the parts in parens and its fine with the IRS - even with some 10 ton hints on how to tell saints from sinners.

Posted by: snoey on September 29, 2008 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

It has about zero chance of being enacted, but I'd support removing the tax exemption from ALL churches, political or not.

Yeah, I'd actually like to see the opposite of what we have right now. Churches should have to incorporate their charitable wings as not-for-profits and leave their non-charitable activities as taxable. So if a church puts 90% of its income into homeless shelters, women's shelters, schools, hospitals, and overseas non-missionary relief efforts, then it would only have to pay taxes on the other 10%. If a church puts only 10% of its income into charitable activities and uses the other 90% to buy property, expand buildings, and fund missionary efforts to "convert the heathens", then it pays taxes on the 90%.

It would never fly, of course, but I'd like to see it.

Posted by: NonyNony on September 29, 2008 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

Churches already enjoy not only tax-exempt status, but they don't even have to prove their activities are non-profit and non-political. The declarations they submit are greatly simplified, basically income minus expenditures with few details. I think this should change anyway, considering all the corruption we have seen in these megachurches, and all churches should have to provide reasonable itemizing (at least by categories) of their finances.
And I hope they challenge the current law and lose their butts.

Posted by: Richard Greenslade on September 29, 2008 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

The churches are going to lose the real Christians who want to Render unto to Caesar What Is Caesar's etc.

Most people who go to church do it because they actually want to live life the way Jesus told them to. There is only so much they will let their pastors do before they kick the pastors out and get actual Christians. Most people don't like the idea of a religious leader telling them how God wants them to vote. That's what the Protestant movement was actually about, and very religious people realize this. I think this will backfire from both sides - congregations and the IRS. So, good for them for testing it. The experiment will blow up in their faces.

Posted by: The Answer Is Green on September 29, 2008 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

"Today's sermon is taken from The Book of Talking Points, Chapter six, Verse two, wherein it is written: Thou shalt not vote for a black man for president. Thou shall instead vote for the oldest, whitest man running for that office."

Posted by: Dennis - SGMM on September 29, 2008 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

I eagerly await my next Clarion DVD on the dangers of radical Christianity to the West!

Posted by: Bob Loblaw on September 29, 2008 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK
ut 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.

They don't even have to give up the tax exemption, they just have to give away the tax deductibility of donations.

OTOH, as the tax law does somewhat more strictly limit churches compared to other 501(c)(3)s when it comes to political activity, there is a colorable argument that it is a discrimination against, rather than neutrality toward.

Posted by: cmdicely on September 29, 2008 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

A vote for Obama means you are: "Severely Morally Schizophrenic?"

Gee, I don't remember reading about that diagnosis--

Might this also include other symptoms such as aerial moose hunting, denying women voice and choice who have been raped and incested, cheating on one's spouse, lying repeatedly and without remorse, spreading viscous slanderous lies about another, being a sexually active-- and then boastfully pregnant-- un-wed teen?

If they have the gall to do this publicly, what are they doing with emails and the like? I shudder to imagine the full extent of such fear mongering bigotry cloaked under the guise of religious faith.

Posted by: on September 29, 2008 at 11:17 AM | PERMALINK

Thinking on this again- it's a deflection issue- like a hypothetical book-banning. No church leader is going to risk the IRS going over their books. It's more like a "ready check" false flag waving.

More stunts than a Hollywood movie, imho.

Posted by: RememberNovember on September 29, 2008 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

At the risk of being considered tin-foil wrapped, I think there is a dangerous effort on the RR to "infiltrate" all aspects of our political systems and literally take over the country. City councils and school boards are getting packed with these guys in many communities.

I get especially nervous with all the "home-schooling" going on with fundies. I envision a lot of wacky theories entering into our national conversation in the future, if this phenomenon continues.

Paranoid? After the last 30 years of witnessing the rise of the Moral Majority in all its incarnations, I don't think so.

Posted by: Becca on September 29, 2008 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

If the IRS ignores the rebellion (and it might) they win. If they go to court and the IRS rule is overturned, they win. If the IRS and the courts punishes them, they win because these evil theocrats will play the victim, and just demonize the government as being "anti-Christian."

Posted by: Rich on September 29, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Taxing donations to churches would be the mother lode of all taxes.

Posted by: slanted tom on September 29, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's about time we eliminate all tax deferments for churches. Religion has gone from the "mom and pop shops" to the "big box stores" and thus needs to pay taxes just like any other big business.
I live in the middle of Tulsa, OK, and there's more churches here than gas stations. Most of 'em are as big as a city block and include TV and Webcasting facilities. Some, like Rhema Bible College (sic), are charging their flock much more than 10% for entry to Jesusland. And that money is being used to buy up surrounding real estate, put up multi-million light xmas displays, and as of this year, putting on 4th of July spectaculars. Ah, nearer my god to thee...

Tax them all.

Posted by: Tax and Spend Lib'rul on September 29, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

I think this is the perfect time for some churches to choose to start paying taxes. With our budget deficit where it is, if we can start taxing a new revenue stream, I'm all for it.

I definately do NOT want my tax dollars subsidizing any right wing nutcases who only HAPPEN to be pastors.

Posted by: big time patriot on September 29, 2008 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

I'm an unrepentant atheist who plans to vote against McCain in November, and I can't stand the religious right either. But all of you nutjobs drooling over the thought of taxing all contributions to churches make me want to run out and get baptized. You're like a parody of the far-left bogeymen that the conservative blogosphere claims is going to run the country if Obama wins. I didn't actually believe that people like this existed until I moved to California, and even after living here several years it still blows my mind that there are people who view higher taxes as a moral crusade, rather than a necessary evil required to keep the government functioning. (And anyone who believes that the government needs to stamp out religious superstition has no right to call his/her self a "liberal.")

Please just shut up until the election is over, 'kay?

Posted by: Nat on September 29, 2008 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Asking black pastors to consult with a campaign about the issues that their congregations care about in order to ascertain whether or not those issues can be addressed by the candidate is NOT the same thing as advocating for a particular candidate from the pulpit or being able to take up political donations from a captive audience on a candidate's behalf.

Posted by: Always Hopeful on September 29, 2008 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

I get especially nervous with all the "home-schooling" going on with fundies. I envision a lot of wacky theories entering into our national conversation in the future, if this phenomenon continues.

Wacky theories will always find a way to creep into our national conversation, and as long as we have a massive government that dabbles in social engineering (probably forever), they'll find a way to creep into politics and fester. Get used to it. Home-schooled creationists are no worse than the Maoist dead-enders who pass out literature near where I live, and I guarantee you that those imbeciles didn't acquire their cultish beliefs in church youth group. (I realize that in the USA, the Maoists were too few in number and too incompetent to do any local damage - but they're still insane.) I'd prefer that none of these people end up anywhere near the government - or the voting booth, for that matter - but they have just as much a right to their irrational worldview as we do to ours. Putting up with lobotomy victims wearing WWJD bracelets or Che Guevara T-shirts is the price we pay for living in a free and open society. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Posted by: Nat on September 29, 2008 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

Nat,

A tad defensive...IF churches don't act like churches THEN they need to be taxed. With all the crap that Democrats and liberals have had to take from the RR, do you really blame us for fantasizing a little bit? Lighten up!

Are you as hard on the conservative blogs who fantasize about the rest of us being eliminated as traitors?

Posted by: Always Hopeful on September 29, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you for your concern, Nat.

Posted by: Gregory on September 29, 2008 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

With all the crap that Democrats and liberals have had to take from the RR, do you really blame us for fantasizing a little bit?

I realize that post-Bush revenge fantasies are a natural byproduct of the last eight years. I admit that I'll even take pleasure in the conservative reaction to an Obama victory, immature though that may be. But my fantasies don't involve tax hikes on working-class voters, even the ones who voted us into this mess. And frankly, the whole screw-the-religious attitude that's in vogue in some parts of the secular left (people like Richard Dawkins, for instance) creeps me out a bit.

Are you as hard on the conservative blogs who fantasize about the rest of us being eliminated as traitors?

I don't try to argue with them, if that's what you mean. What's the point of having a political debate with someone who inhabits an alternate reality? The only rational response to people like that is to keep your head down and hope they don't start shooting at you. I've been called some pretty nasty names by liberals, which is always depressing since we're supposedly on the same side right now, but I'm fairly confident that none of those ever fantasized about hanging me in public. I would be much happier, however, if the American left was more consistently anti-authoritarian, and less petty and vindictive. (Disclaimer: I live in a part of the country where the far left is unusually loud and idiotic, so they tend to annoy me more than they really should. On the national level, they're pretty near irrelevant.)

Posted by: Nat on September 29, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

IIRC in 2004 the only church the IRS went after was a liberal church which had supported Kerry, in spite of far more serious cases of right-wing churches violating the law.

If McCain wins, I wouldn't be expecting a rigorous prosecution...

Posted by: MikeN on September 29, 2008 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

The pastor at the church I attend recently mentioned Sarah Palin's persecution because of her Christianity. He's also made a few derogatory comments, though not explicitly electoral, about Barack Obama. If pastors want to mix the spiritual and the political, I'm all in favor of repealing the tax exempt status for their church. Menwhile, I figure that if the church is mixing the political with the spiritual, then donating to a political campaign is the same as tithing. I wonder how many extra donations I'll be making to the Obama campaign?

Posted by: coldhotel on September 30, 2008 at 7:45 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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