The Alliance Defending Freedom, a group of “ministries” with a clearly conservative political agenda, have announced their intention to confront the Internal Revenue Service (and the U.S. Constitution) over the issue of political speech from the pulpit. A 1954 amendment to the tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from making political endorsements. The group intends to videotape over 1000 pastors doing just that, and sending the tapes to the IRS. Their purpose is to force the government to impose sanctions on one or more of the churches, as a prelude to a court case, challenging the constitutionality of the law.
The amendment states tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, are:
absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.
Violation of this restriction “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax.”
According to Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, in an interview with FoxNews.com:
The purpose is to make sure that the pastor — and not the IRS — decides what is said from the pulpit. It is a head-on constitutional challenge.
We’re hoping the IRS will respond by doing what they have threatened. We have to wait for it to be applied to a particular church or pastor so that we can challenge it in court. We don’t think it’s going to take long for a judge to strike this down as unconstitutional.
In a country that has seen an upswing in ‘Christian conservatism’ in recent years, this could become a milestone in the direction of American politics and law. It could have far-reaching effects to uncounted social and legal spheres, affecting even or military and the reasons we go to war.
If this is a first amendment issue, as is claimed, it would seem the ADF’s argument is invalid; the government (in this instance the IRS) is neither prohibiting or restricting anyone’s free speech. Pastors and other clergy, are already free to make political endorsements from the pulpit; they have no inherent right to expect the U.S. government to exempt them from taxation, however. Political endorsement is clearly beyond the spiritual realm. Taking monetary gifts or donations while participating in the political process is simply not a free speech matter.
The existence of the Alliance Defending Freedom is itself a troubling indictment on the ‘separation of church and state.’ It is plainly, defiantly, a political action committee that takes tax-exempt donations, and works solely to shape U.S. government policy through lobbying and legislation. Their agenda extends to limiting reproductive and quality-of life rights, preventing the LGBT community from attaining civil rights and forcing their dogma on children in public schools, a place where they have a right to expect protection from their government.
The ‘separation of church and state’ is a critical part of the foundation of our government. But it’s a principle that can easily be misapplied; it was meant to provide American citizens protection from church doctrine. Churches were exempted from taxation, so to provide a clear demarcation between government and church. Too often, in the ensuing years, churches who have benefited from this largesse sought to further increase their power and influence, by trying to inset themselves into the government.
This is a risky maneuver for these pastors; they run the risk not only of losing their tax-exempt status,theoretically they stand to lose millions of dollars for faith-based organizations across the American spectrum. If the courts were to decide that separation of church and state is absolute, it would halt government spending on everything from voucher schools to armed forces chaplains.
It makes one suspect of the timing of this action, if they believe this fight could reach the Supreme Court, then time may be of the essence. There could conceivably be as many as three SCOTUS judges retiring in the next few years, and the current conservative majority would be preferable to the ADF, no doubt. If Obama wins re-election, his appointees would certainly tilt the balance towards a more liberal court.
Of course, the pastors will be endorsing “whatever candidate they choose.” so maybe they’ll all be endorsing Obama anyway, right?