By Kelly Boggs, Baptist Message Editor
On Sunday, October 7, pastors across the United States have indicated they will participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, when they plan to endorse or oppose political candidates from their pulpits during worship services.
The aforementioned coordinated effort was started in 2008 by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) and is designed to call attention to and also violate an IRS statute that forbids pastors from stumping for candidates from their pulpits.
Alliance Defending Freedom is described on the organization’s web site as: “… a servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.”
One of the purposes of the pulpit politicking is an overt attempt to force the IRS’s hand. Pastors who participate are asked to make a video of their sermons and mail them to the IRS. The hope is that the U.S. taxing authority will seek to punish one, or more, of the churches led by the law-breaking pastors.
The goal is to provoke the IRS so that it will move to void the tax exempt status of a church or churches due to violating speech restrictions imposed in 1954 by the Johnson Amendment. If that were to occur, it would allow a court challenge of federal government restrictions on political involvement by churches and pastors.
If the IRS did move against a church or churches, it would allow Alliance Defending Freedom to challenge the Johnson Amendment in court, in hopes that it would be found to be unconstitutional. Alliance Defending Freedom would provide the defense for such a case at no expense to the church or churches.
It is worth noting that to date, the IRS has not taken any action against a church whose pastor has participated in the pulpit freedom event. A bit of history is helpful to fully understand the motive behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
Churches were not subjected to any speech restrictions until 1954. However, in 1954 Congress approved an amendment by Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson to prohibit tax-exempt organizations from engaging in any political activity.
A variety of historical accounts indicate that LBJ drafted the legislation in order to curtail the activities of certain tax-exempt entities that gave support to his challenger in that year’s primary election. Regardless, the rules apply to all 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes most charities and churches, and each time it has revisited the issue, Congress has strengthened the ban.
The Johnson Amendment stipulates that organizations that have been granted a 501(c)(3) tax status by the IRS are not allowed to “participate in, or intervene in (including publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
While the passage of the Johnson Amendment the IRS has held that tax exempt organizations cannot intervene in an election on behalf or against any particular candidate, churches are allowed to expend “an insubstantial amount” of funds on advocating for or opposing specific issues oriented legislation.
In other words, where legislation, not candidacy, is concerned, a small portion of a tax exempt organization’s budget can be used to challenge or champion a political issue. However, what determines an “insubstantial amount” has never been clearly defined. As to candidates and campaigns, the prohibition is absolute.
Among the benefits of being a tax exempt organization are that the organization does not have to pay corporate income taxes, and that donations to the organization are tax-deductible on federal income tax returns. Violating the tax rules can place an organization in jeopardy of losing its tax-exempt status.
If you believe the Johnson Amendment is an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of speech as it pertains to churches and would like to learn about Pulpit Freedom Sunday slated for Oct. 7, seewww.pulpitfreedom.org.
Until such time that the Johnson Amendment is overturned as unconstitutional – and I believe it is only a matter of time until that happens – what can a church and pastor do to insure that both comply with the IRS speech restrictions?
Since it is impossible to provide a definitive list of what a church can and cannot do due to the fact that the IRS interprets what is and is not legal, the sidebar to the right is offered as a general guideline.
DO’S AND DON’T’S FOR PASTORS AND CHURCHES
While the IRS forbids a church from endorsing or opposing a candidate, it does not forbid a pastor, as a private citizen, from doing so.
If a pastor supports or opposes a candidate, how he goes about it is crucial. If a pastor endorses a candidate during an official meeting of the church, does so in an official church publication or on church stationery, he will violate IRS rules pertaining to nonprofit organizations.
When personally endorsing a candidate, the pastor may state his affiliation with his church. However, this can only be for identification purposes. It must be understood that his endorsement is personal and does not constitute a church endorsement.
Additionally, a pastor – as a private citizen – may make financial contributions to candidates or political action campaigns. A church cannot.
Pastors and churches may address moral and social issues, even those that have been politicized. A church may even contribute “an insubstantial” amount of its budget to support or oppose a particular issue. However, the same cannot be done in respect to a political party or for a specific candidate.
During an election campaign, a candidate for public office may not be allowed to deliver a political speech, particularly to garner support or raise funds for a campaign, at a church. However, candidates may be introduced to a congregation in the course of a worship service.
Candidates may also be given the opportunity to preach, teach or read Scripture on the same basis as any church member or guest speaker. Again, the appearance cannot be political in nature and cannot be used to solicit funds for his or her campaign or political party. A rule of thumb is for there to be no reference made to the candidate’s political campaign.
A church may host a candidate forum provided all candidates for a given office are invited and allowed to participate.
A church may not loan its membership list or mailing list to a candidate or political committee for use in an election campaign.
Non-partisan voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote programs also are allowed. Churches also are allowed to distribute voter guides, provided they are non-partisan, do not endorse any candidate or candidates. The guide must also cover a broad range of issues (not just the issues deemed important to the church) and include all candidates’ positions.
If you have any specific question concerning what a pastor or church can or cannot do in reference to political candidates or campaigns, feel free to contact me at 318-442-7728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.