‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ turns clergy into outlaws

This Sunday, Oct. 7, many ministers across the nation will purposefully violate the law from their pulpits. Called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” the day has been marked by the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) for preachers to openly endorse and oppose candidates for political office, in violation of IRS regulations and just in time for the November elections.

The IRS explains on its website:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office… [P]ublic statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.

ADF encourages churches to blatantly break this law, then flaunt their unlawful activity by sending recordings of their sermons to the IRS. ADF publishes lists of churches that participate.

The regulations are in place so that nonprofit organizations (and their donors) do not receive a government subsidy in the form of tax exemption for their political endorsements. Imagine the political hanky-panky should churches be allowed to use their considerable wealth to directly endorse and influence partisan political elections, with no financial accountability to the public! Imagine the political candidates pandering directly for votes by marshalling congregations to directly campaign for them, as well as fund them. The purity of both church and state would be contaminated.

ADF, a theocratic group, believes that churches should be given special treatment, and be allowed to engage in partisan activity while maintaining their tax-exempt status. ADF has openly stated that one reason it promotes the Pulpit Freedom Sunday is because it hopes the IRS will enforce its regulations against a church so that it will have the means to challenge the restriction in litigation.

This brazen disrespect for the law is based on inaccurate constitutional claims. ADF claims the restrictions violate the Establishment Clause by excessively entangling the government with churches’ internal affairs. However, churches choose to be subject to restrictions on political activity as a condition of claiming tax-exempt status, just like all other groups classified as 501(c)(3) organizations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation. ADF claims the restrictions violate free speech protections, even though clergy are perfectly free to say whatever they like from the pulpit if they do not claim tax-exempt status, or to endorse as individuals outside a church context. Churches are not required to be tax-exempt, and the government is not required to subsidize churches’ political ideologies.

We encourage members and the public to be on watch for unlawful political activity at churches on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” or any other day. Please visit FFRF’s Churches and Political Lobbying Activity FAQ (http://ffrf.org/faq/state-church/item/14005-churches-and-political-lobbying-activities) for more information. See the FAQ for instructions on submitting a complaint to the IRS directly, or contact FFRF to do so on your behalf. Help us ensure that churches either stay out of politics, or render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

Thanks to Maddy Zieger, legal intern

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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