Tax law makes it illegal for pastors and other representatives of tax-exempt religious organizations to endorse political candidates, right? The Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), a conservative Christian legal organization, says otherwise – and they’re pushing pastors to break the law.
Tomorrow is “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” and the ADF is recruiting Christian ministers to spread partisan political messages during their church services and sermons, in defiance of tax law. The ADF is associated with extremely conservative Christian groups and works on causes such as opposing marriage equality, defending religiously-based bullying of gay children, and opposing reproductive health care access. They claim the IRS restrictions on certain kinds of partisan political speech by 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations infringe on the religious liberty of churches and pastors.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State says that’s nonsense. They argue that the restrictions on electioneering are part of the distinction between religion and government, and that organizations which endorse or oppose political candidates, or otherwise try to affect the outcome of an election, run a serious risk of having their tax-exempt status removed, as has happened before. In response, AU has launched Project Fair Play, which spreads resources about what tax-exempt organizations can and can’t do.
Americans United also sent letters to 60,000 clergy earlier this election season reminding them that while they are free to speak about issues, they cannot endorse candidates. AU is actively reporting violations to the IRS and urging them to investigate.
The Pulpit Freedom Sunday site encourages pastors to spread political messages and does not warn them about the line between religious and political speech. There are areas where this is complex, but some situations are fairly clear: endorsing or opposing candidates using the resources of the tax-exempt organization, such as during a sermon or in a church-funded publication, cannot endorse or oppose candidates. While ADF doesn’t tell pastors to endorse candidates, its message to “unleash your church to give a bold and faithful witness to your community” exactly a month before election day comes very close to doing so. It is being spread side-by-side with increasing conservative Christian rhetoric against Obama, and many churches are clearly taking the initiative as a call to endorse Romney. But pastors who rely on ADF’s assurances should be sure to read the fine print, where ADF makes it clear that they won’t necessarily be responsible for defending the church if the IRS comes calling: “Nothing in this communication should be taken as a guarantee of legal representation.”
Given the conservative Christian position that religious freedom is only a right for Christians, and their efforts to elect lawmakers who agree, this restriction can actually help protect religious liberty for minorities by keeping donations from going to support partisan politicking. And as a growing number of Pagan organizations gain tax-exempt status, this is something Pagan clergy should be aware of as well. So spread the word, educate yourself and your organization, and if you witness a violation, consider reporting it.