Monday, September 8, 2008

ADF Calls for "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" - A Day When Ministers Are Asked to Violate the Ban on Endorsing (or Opposing) Candidates for Elective Office

The Alliance Defense Fund has called on pastors and ministers to violate the statutory prohibition against tax exempt charities endorsing or opposing candidates for elective public office.  The so-called "Pulpit Freedom Day" is set for Sunday, September 28.  The basis for the call to endorse or oppose is ADF's belief that the statutory ban violates the religious organization's First Amendment constitutional rights.  The call is designed to bate the IRS into challenging the religious leader's actions in federal court so that the U.S. Supreme Court can finally rule of the constitutionality of the 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by churches and other tax-exempt charities.  Regarding ADF's reasoning, the article says:

Defining its latest mission, the ADF declared that pastors have "too long feared" the loss of tax exemptions.

"We're not encouraging any congregation to violate the law," Stanley said. "What we're encouraging them to do is exercise their constitutional right in the face of an unconstitutional law."

Interestingly, an opposing group of Church and Jewish clergy are asking religious leaders not to engage in the call because such action would be "an assault on the rule of law and the separation of church and state."  The group also wants the government to determine whether the ADF should lose its tax-exemption by organizing a supposedly "illegal" activity.  Regarding the opposing groups reasoning, the article says:

Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, calls "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" a "stunt" that is part of an effort by the religious right to build a church network that will "put their candidates into office. It's part of the overall game plan."

"This is an extraordinarily reckless scheme that they are promoting," Conn said. "The federal tax law is clear. Churches are charitable institutions that exist to do charitable things. That does not include politics. Political groups do politics."

I think it's about time that this murky line of where constitutional freedoms end and compliance with statutory law begins gets clarified.  Unlike those cited in the Washington Post article as opposing the ADF action, the law in this area is not at all clear.  Granted, the statutory prohibition is clear in that it prohibits campaigning for (or against) candidates for elective public office.  But just reading that language out of context misses some very important aspects of charitable existence.  It is not enough, in my mind at least, to say that tax-exemption is a privilege and not a right.  To the extent that there is true value in the exemption itself, which I contend has significant monetary and non-monetary value, an aspect of the exemption law that effectively silences religion in a significant way is constitutionally suspect.

For the entire story, see "Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors" in the September 8, 2008, edition of the Washington Post.


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The Supreme Court has alredy held that limitations on lobbying activities are acceptable. Is it the degree of limitation that matters? Otherwise, how do you distinguish (at a constitutional level) lobbying from election activity?

Posted by: DC Insider | Sep 9, 2008 9:42:23 AM

The difference between lobbying and political campaigning is that some lobbying is permitted but political campaigning is absolutely forbidden. This, I believe, is an important legal distinction. It might arguably also be an important constitutional legal distinction. DAB

Posted by: David Brennen | Sep 9, 2008 10:13:03 AM

(disclaimer...this is my personal opinion)

If they benefit from their tax exempt status, the price for those benefits is that they don't get to play in politics. Very simple, and this applies to all tax-exempt, non-profit agencies -- schools, hospitals, social charities, etc., they all play by the same rules. Why should churches not be held to the same law that governs other non profits?

Religious/spiritual leaders have an obligation to their parishioners to guide them in principles, issues, and how to go about making (what they believe to be) spiritually healthy life choices. They can guide and teach about their values. But not a single one of those leaders has any clue about the heart of another, and they cannot be involved in naming names and conducing political speech for or against this or that specific candidate. They should trust their parishioners to have the intelligence to make their own informed choices, rather that telling the parishioners who they have to vote for if they want to keep their salvation, or make it into heaven, or "be on God's side".

Posted by: Ray | Sep 9, 2008 2:26:26 PM

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