Not-So-Civil Disobedience: Pulpit Freedom Sunday and Voter Coercion

By Andrew Seidel
FFRF Staff Attorney

AndrewSeidelThis past Sunday, Oct. 7, was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a day when rogue pastors around the country intentionally dare the IRS to enforce the U.S. tax code by endorsing political candidates. This year almost 1,600 pastors participated. The Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) organizes the charade using a portion of their $35 million annual budget

As 501(c)3 non-profit entities, churches are tax exempt. This exemption is not a constitutional right but a privilege. The government is willing to check its constitutional power to tax 501(c)3’s, but in return requires that charitable, religious, and educational groups receiving this substantial public subsidy abstain from endorsing political candidates. Churches are able to endorse all the political candidates, they just have to pay taxes if they do so.

The ADF and its greedy pastors want their privilege, but shun the responsibility that comes with it. The day is meant to taunt the IRS into enforcing the exemption/endorsement dichotomy. If the IRS acts, the ADF will sue claiming the rule violates the freedom of speech.

There are two good reasons for this rule. First, as tax exempt speech, 501(c)3 speech is effectively taxpayer subsidized. Second, churches wield inordinate power over their congregants. ADF and its preachers wish to convert that religious power into political power.

The government requires the non-endorsement responsibility because tax-exempt entities are technically taxpayer-subsidized. We, the public, pay more taxes because tax-exempt organizations pay none. “When the Government grants exemptions or allows deductions all taxpayers are affected; the very fact of the exemption or deduction for the donor means that other taxpayers can be said to be indirect and vicarious ‘donors.’” Bob Jones Univ. v. United States, 461 U.S. 574, 591 (1983).  

The second and more pernicious aspect of church-politicking is the power that religious leaders hold over their followers. Like the “Alliance Defending Freedom,” “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is an Orwellian name, right up there with the “Ministry of Truth” and the “Ministry of Love.” In 1984, the Ministry of Love coerces Oceania citizens to love Big Brother through fear and torture and threats of the same. Indeed, in the final sentence of the book the Ministry is victorious, “He [Winston Smith] loved Big Brother.” We can’t be sure that Orwell was alluding to Christianity, but every time I read the novel or the phrase I am reminded of Jesus’ ministry of love—“for God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish,” but everyone else is tortured for eternity in Hell.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is not about freedom, it is about power. The ADF and these pastors are seeking the power to coerce a flock into voting for a particular candidate. Imagine yourself in the pews last Sunday, a devout believer, listening to a man you believe is speaking with the voice of God. He tells you that eternal torture awaits all those who vote for the “wrong” candidate. He quotes biblical verses describing Hell as a burning wind, a fiery oven, an unquenchable fire, a furnace of fire, an eternal fire, a judgment by fire, and an eternal punishment. It is not the pastor, but God commanding you to vote for candidate X.   Disobey and you end up on wrong end of Jesus’ Ministry of Love.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is meant to increase the power of churches. It allows that churches to pressure — blackmail is an appropriate term — their adherents to vote a certain way. The next step is megachurches promising political candidates thousands of votes in return for a few million dollars for a “faith-based initiative.” (Incidentally, under the Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. § 1971) voter intimidation and coercion are illegal. Even attempting to coerce or intimidate a person into voting a certain way is a violation of the Act.)

It is time for the government to decide. The current policy of not enforcing the tax code on politicking preachers not only legalizes, but also subsidizes, electoral fraud and coercion of the worst kind. Either enforce the law and bring down the hammer on these churches or, and I prefer this alternative, tax the churches.

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