For the third year, the Alliance Defense Fund is encouraging religious organizations to challenge government censorship of pulpit speech as elections approach.
In September, ADF called on pastors to preach about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking office on a day designated as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Participating clergy were instructed to mail their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service.
The hope: Prompt the IRS to file a lawsuit, which then would result in existing legislation being contested.
Almost all faith groups are exempt from federal income taxes. According to the IRS, under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, organizations with tax-exempt status are restricted in how much political and legislative activities they may conduct.
The Revenue Act of 1954 contains an amendment — added by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson — stating that charitable organizations may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
Some argue that tax exemption is a government subsidy, opening the door to some federal oversight.
The ADF disagrees.
“Churches are exempt from taxation under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy religion than to begin taxing it,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, the power to tax involves the power to destroy.”
The Johnson amendment is being broadly interpreted to mean that ministers may not speak on politics from the pulpit. The consequence: Many pastors are self-censoring their sermons to avoid the risk of losing the church’s tax-exempt status.
As a pastor, I prefer not politicking from the pulpit because it shifts focus from the gospel, which is the primary purpose of preaching. However, placing limits on the pulpit is not only a violation of free speech and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, but it also has troubling repercussions for all faith groups.
The fear among religious leaders is that pulpit censorship could escalate to a restriction on speaking on social issues that spill over into politics. As an example, in 2008 the LDS Church’s support of California’s Proposition 8 spurred calls for the religion to lose its tax-exempt status.
For evangelicals, the Bible is a guidebook for daily living. Christians are expected to base their decisions, including social and political convictions, on biblical principles. A pulpit sermon has its basis in the Scriptures and thus sometimes deals with moral and social ideology. The preacher’s goal is not to persuade parishioners to adopt his or her personal views or to sway political votes, but rather to present the Bible’s position in hopes that congregants will align their beliefs with biblical precepts.
The IRS has yet to take the ADF’s bait. While pastors are not permitted to oppose or endorse a candidate from the pulpit, we still have the right to preach sound biblical principles and to urge congregants to become involved in the political process. Ultimately, people of faith should be allowed to vote their own convictions.