Friday, May 9, 2008

Politics from the Pulpit

Suzanne Sataline of the Wall Street Journal online reports today that a conservative legal-advocacy group, Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Arizona nonprofit, is enlisting ministers to use their pulpits to preach about election candidates this September, defying legal prohibitions that bar churches from engaging in politics.

According to the report, the group is hoping that at least one sermon will prompt the IRS to investigate, sparking a court battle that could get the tax provision declared unconstitutional. The action marks the latest attempt by a conservative organization to help clergy harness their congregations to sway elections. The protest is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 28, a little more than a month before the general election, in a year when religious concerns and preachers have been a regular part of the political debate.

The report notes that the section of the tax code barring nonprofits from intervening in political campaigns has long frustrated clergy. Many ministers consider the provision an inappropriate government intrusion, blocking the duty of clergy to advise congregants.

In recent years, attempts by members of Congress to change the law have failed. Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit that has filed more than a dozen complaints in the past year with the IRS accusing nonprofits of tax code violations, takes the position that tax exemption is a benefit and comes with conditions. He is reported as saying that any pastor who feels gagged  should forgo the tax exemption and say what he or she wants.

In 1954, Congress made it illegal for nonprofits, including churches, to endorse or publicly oppose political candidates or to intervene in candidates' elections, although they are free to take sides on issues. Only one church has challenged this, unsuccessfully. The U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled in 2000that the IRS didn't violate constitutional rights when it revoked the tax-exempt status of Branch Ministries of Binghamton, N.Y., which had bought newspaper ads opposing Bill Clinton's candidacy.

Apparently, some legal scholars are hoping for a new test case. Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, is reported as saying that a church might make a successful claim that the federal government is burdening the free exercise of religion and cannot do so without a compelling state interest.


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