SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a right-wing legal support group founded and led by former Meese Commission counsel Alan Sears, has announced a "new initiative to reclaim pastors' First Amendment rights" by challenging IRS rules that prevent tax-exempt institutions from supporting political candidates.
"Pastors have a right to speak about biblical values from the pulpit without fear of punishment," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. "The government can't demand that a church give up its right to tax-exempt status simply because the pastor exercises his First Amendment rights in the pulpit."
Um ... yeah, it can. First of all, tax-exempt status isn't a "right"; it's a privilege based on obeying the IRS's rules. (One might think a "senior legal counsel" at an attorneys' organization would understand that, but apparently not.) The Internal Revenue Code clearly states that "exemption from taxation under subsection (a) shall be denied because a substantial part of the activities of such organization consists of carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation" beyond certain well-established limits.
Explains Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), "Non-profit organizations receive tax exemption because their work is charitable, educational or religious. That tax benefit comes with conditions. One requirement is that tax-exempt organizations refrain from involvement in partisan politics. This is a reasonable rule, since tax-exempt groups are supposed to work for the public good, not spend their time and money trying to elect or defeat candidates."
Second, the key words are "in the pulpit." AU has produced a brochure for clergy explaining what they can and can't do politically if they want to retain their tax exempt status:
"Prohibited activities include letters of endorsement printed on the letterhead of the church, synagogue, temple or mosque. Distribution of campaign literature, pulpit endorsements of candidates, display of campaign signs on religiously owned property and other similar activities also clearly indicate partisan involvement in an election. (It should be noted, however, that clergy may endorse candidates as individuals in forums outside the church or work on behalf of candidates during their personal time.)" [Emphasis added]
Hence, no endorsements from the pulpit.
The reason for this should be obvious: Churches (and others) who don't pay taxes on their incomes have that much more money to spend on their own uses, unlike other advocacy organizations that do pay such taxes, and if the tax-exempt organizations engage in political speech in the form of endorsing or decrying particular candidates, part of that speech is then being subsidized by the people who do pay taxes, who may very well not agree with the speech they're involuntarily subsidizing.
"Houses of worship have the right to refuse tax-exempt status if they want to endorse candidates," AU importantly notes. "Religious leaders already have a clear legal right to use their pulpits to address moral and political issues. If congregations decide they want to go further and raise funds for campaigns and endorse candidates, they have every legal right to give up their tax exemption and create an explicitly partisan organization. Current law simply limits groups from being both tax-exempt ministries and partisan political outfits."
But no, that's not good enough for ADF. Their "new initiative," dubbed the "Pastor Project," intends to challenge federal law by flouting the regulations about endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and while the date specified for such flouting is "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," Sept. 28, some ministers have already begun their civil disobedience.
"[W]hen [Minnesota pastor Gus] Booth addressed the members of his Warroad Community Church one Sunday in May," reported Russell Goldman for ABCNews.com, "and told them, 'If you are a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for president,' he very much knew he was violating the law. He even wrote a letter to the IRS explaining what he had said and challenging the tax collection agency to do something about it."
By the way, Booth, according to that same report, is also a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Moreover, on Tuesday, the New York Times' Laurie Goodstein reported that, "[D]uring the Republican primary battle, [Florida evangelist Bill] Keller proclaimed to his followers and the news media that 'a vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for Satan'," adding that Romney's church, Latter Day Saints (Mormon), did not represent "biblical Christianity."
For those statements, Keller is being investigated by the IRS, along with more than 50 other groups - both churches and other non-profits - against which complaints were made since 2006. During that same period, "the IRS did substantiate improper political activity in 26 cases and issued written advisories," according to an agency report. However, "So far, there are no revocation recommendations."
And that's the sort of "action" (or lack of it) that ADF is counting on - especially since, for instance, in 2004, when the IRS examined 110 alleged cases of political speech violations of its Code, it revoked the tax-exempt status of just five organizations, none of which were churches.
According to Goodstein, Keller's denunciations "were religious and not political" - another attempt to break down the constitutional separation of religion and state that Americans United fights against constantly.
Hence, ADF's Stanley claims, "We're asking pastors to make specific recommendations based on Scripture as to how their congregations should vote," pretending that that is somehow not political speech.
Generously, Stanley says ADF will be sending tapes of the planned offending sermons to the IRS, and "then sue the agency for inhibiting free speech and the free exercise of religion when an investigation is opened."
It's significant, therefore, that the group has chosen Sept. 28 to "make its stand." That date is just six weeks before the presidential election, and two weeks past the point where the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act cuts off corporate- and union-funded broadcast ads that mention, positively or negatively, a particular candidate. But, with the Religious Right's Supreme Court victory last year in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right To Life, Inc. , which exempted "ads susceptible of a reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate," no doubt well in mind, ADF likely hopes to capitalize both on the news value of suing the IRS over the sermons, portions of which speeches will undoubtedly form part of such newscasts (at least on "The 700 Club" and other religious venues), and it may even run broadcast and print ads decrying the IRS's "suppression" of pastors' political speech, which also are likely to quote political portions of the sermons. So for ADF and the Religious Right, it's a no-lose situation.
And that's just one of the ways that religious conservatives hope to steal the 2008 presidential election. We'll be revealing more ways as the campaign progresses.