“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” Challenges I.R.S. on Political Speech

As I reported , some American churches are protesting the rule that requires non-profit organizations like churches to refrain from making political endorsements if they want to qualify for certain tax exemptions. They think churches ought to be able to speak out without restriction about political candidates, without endangering their tax exempt status.

What makes this a Picket Line topic is that these churches have decided to press their case by means of civil disobedience. They are making explicit political endorsements from the pulpit while continuing to file their tax returns as though they were compliant tax exempt non-profit organizations, and daring the IRS to come after them — a form of tax resistance.

One pastor put it this way: “The Bible says render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. But Caesar is demanding more and more of what was once considered God’s matter, and pastors have been bullied and intimidated enough.”

Now in its fourth year, the movement seems to be growing, with hundreds of churches now participating in the annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” It is very much a creature of the Christian right-wing, via the Alliance Defense Fund, whose other projects include trying to kick gays out of the military (so as not to offend the religious liberties of military chaplains, apparently), defending the rights of Christian students against various campus speech codes and the like, countering that darned homosexual agenda and trying to make The Gay unfashionable again, and various anti-abortion crusades.

Some of the churches who are participating in the movement go out of their way to provoke the IRS — in some cases, sending audiotapes of their political sermons to the agency as unmistakable evidence of their deviation from the legal requirements.

But so far, according to the protest organizers, none of the participating churches has been audited or threatened with the revocation of their nonprofit status. Indeed, the Alliance Defense Fund has been unable to find a single case, since the rule restricting tax-exempt non-profits from making political endorsements was first made into law over fifty years ago, where a church has lost its tax exemption because of the content of a sermon (though I think the IRS has successfully gone after churches who have published political ads or voter guides).

Either way, though, the protest succeeds: If the IRS goes after one of the churches, the Alliance plans to launch a legal battle that they are confident they will ultimately win on First Amendment grounds. If it doesn’t, the protesters have proven that the legal restriction on political sermons by tax exempt churches is a dead letter, and more preachers will feel free to be able to tell their flocks who it is that God wants them to vote for.