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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

%250 %America/Chicago, %2014

Pulpit Freedom Sunday Action Alert

This Sunday, Oct. 5, is the annual so-called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." This event, organized and promoted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Right legal group based in Arizona, encourages pastors to abuse their tax-exempt status and openly endorse or oppose candidates for office from the pulpit.

FFRF wants to take the opportunity to remind the public about the IRS regulations with respect to political activities by 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations and encourage its members to report any illegal activity.

As you may know, FFRF sued the Internal Revenue Service in late 2012 to compel it to enforce its own regulations barring tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits from engaging in partisan political activity. Earlier this year, this case was resolved because the IRS agreed to resume doing its job by investigating tax-exempt churches that engage in illegal electioneering.

So long as Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and any other electioneering by churches during this election season occurs, FFRF remains committed to seeking IRS investigations into this illegal activity. Members who become aware of this activity should send FFRF a violation report with information, including the church's name, the pastor's name and any other information that documents illegal campaign activity. This would include transcripts of sermons, pictures of political signs on church property and copies of church publications announcing endorsements of particular candidates for public office.

IRS regulations specify that 501(c)(3) organizations, which include churches and other religious organizations, are prohibited from "[participating in or intervening in] . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." Revenue Rul. 2007-41, 2007-25 I.R.B. (June 28, 2007). While leaders of churches or religious organizations may express their opinions on political matters as individuals, they are precluded from making "partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization."

This means churches:

• Cannot endorse or oppose candidates for public office.
• Cannot make any communication — either from the pulpit, in a newsletter, or church bulletin — which expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate for public office.
• Cannot make expenditures on behalf of a candidate for public office or allow any resources to be used indirectly for political purposes (e.g., phones for a phone bank).
• Cannot ask a candidate for public office to sign a pledge or other promise to support a particular issue.
• Cannot distribute partisan campaign literature.
• Cannot display political campaign signs favoring a candidate or a party on church property.

Churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations may engage in nonpartisan campaign activities, primarily consisting of voter education. Thus, they may organize and coordinate nonpartisan get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives; sponsor nonpartisan candidate debates or forums, so long as all legally qualified candidates are invited to appear and wide spectrum of issues are covered; educate all candidates on issues of public interest; and create legislative scorecards or voter guides. All of these permissible activities must be done on a nonpartisan basis. A 501(c)(3) entity should not even tacitly express favor or disfavor of a particular candidate.

FFRF also often receives queries from its members about referendum or ballot initiatives occurring in their states. One such current measure is Amendment 1 in Tennessee, which is an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution. Churches have been active all across the state lobbying and urging their congregants to vote "yes." While they have a right to do so under current IRS regulations, this activity can cross the line when certain factors exist.

IRS regulations only allow 501(c)(3)s to engage in issue advocacy or lobbying so long as it does not function as political campaign intervention. The line is crossed when the lobbying becomes an indirect way to support or oppose a candidate for public office. Permissible lobbying can become illegal political campaign intervention when:

• The statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates' positions and/or actions.
• The statement is delivered close to the election (which is now).
• The statement makes reference to voting or the upcoming November election.
• The issue addressed has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office.

Tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits are afforded a special privilege in our country. If an organization chooses to be tax-exempt under 501(c)(3), it forfeits the right to engage in political campaigns. Churches and other religious organizations are free to give up tax-exempt privileges in order to engage in electioneering if they so choose, but they cannot abuse their tax-exempt privilege and remain tax-exempt.

During Pulpit Freedom Sunday and the rest of the midterm election season, keep an eye out for illegal campaign activity by churches and other religious organizations. FFRF has a detailed FAQ on churches and political activity, which provides information on reporting violations.

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Yesterday, the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, wrote about the Jewish practice of kapparot. Kapparot coincides with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Hasidic Jews grab a chicken by the wings and swing it around their heads three times to transfer their sins to the bird. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, while swinging the birds, the soon-to-be-redeemed supplicants chant, "This be my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This cock [or hen] shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace!"

If you know religion, you should know what comes next. The bird is ritually slaughtered. The slaughterer is vicariously redeemed—cleansed of all sins. Participants and PETA estimate that 50,000 chickens are slaughtered in Brooklyn alone. The bird carcasses are supposedly donated to the poor, though they are often thrown in the trash. [WARNINGThere is video evidence of the birds being thrown away, but it is disturbing. It shows bloody, dying birds on the ground, and trash bags full of dead chickens being thrown in a dumpster. It also shows the actual killing of the birds.]

It's hard to watch that video and hear the constant screeching of terrified birds and not be sickened. As I watched it, I wondered what Christians would think. Do they realize that Christianity is Kapparot on an even grander scale? Jesus is nothing more than the scapegoat for Christians. He died for your sins. I often joke that if you don't sin, Jesus died for nothing. But in all seriousness, the idea of vicarious redemption through human sacrifice is—to my mind—the most immoral religious idea. That our guilt and liabilities can be piled onto an innocent living being is disgusting in itself. That our guilt is expunged by extinguishing that innocent life is nothing short of barbaric.

This patently immoral doctrine is a total refutation of personal responsibility. You are not beholden to the people you've stolen from or who you've lied to—you're forgiven because you accept your role in the execution of an innocent.

But this is what Christianity requires: reverence for the sacrifice of an innocent. Christianity reveres the scapegoat, the sacrifice, the kapparot chicken. The snuffing out of an innocent life is reason enough to loathe this immoral doctrine. But that a guilty person has somehow atoned for their transgressions by killing that innocent is worse. This is the doctrine of two wrongs making a right. Minor "sins" are forgiven by admitting your part in the murder of an innocent.

Jesus, if he lived, died for nothing. His death cannot absolve anyone of his or her mistakes. The world would be better off if people would stop piling their sins on the innocent and simply accept personal responsibility for their mistakes.

[Legal note: In 1992, The Supreme Court upheld animal sacrifice as a religious ritual in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). The Court relied on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the same law that Hobby Lobby used to impose evangelical Christianity on its employees. To read more about RFRA's problems, see here.]

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has told the Rowan-Salisbury (N.C.) School System it must immediately drop unconstitutional elementary school-level bible classes. The national state/church watchdog, with more than 21,000 members, including about 550 North Carolina members and a chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society, is awaiting response to an open records request to determine the extent of the violation

In addition to weekly sessions of physical education and art classes, the school district’s youngest students attend a bible class. FFRF received a report about one such session in which the teacher presented the bible as literal fact, including teaching a 7-day creation, giving students examples of “God’s plan” that “clearly” showed the universe was created with a purpose, and supposed examples of the bible predicting scientific discoveries, among other inappropriate teachings inculcating biblical beliefs. 

Local churches fund the bible teachers through nonprofit groups set up specifically to promote bible classes. Under firm Supreme Court precedent, such outside funding does not relieve the school of its obligation to ensure secular education, FFRF noted. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the district on Sept. 24 calling the classes “flagrantly unconstitutional,” pointing out that the Supreme Court had struck down similar classes in 1948 in a landmark case in which the facts “could hardly be more similar.” 

“It is appalling that the District would take away from instructional time to indoctrinate children in Christian dogma,” Elliott said, calling on Rowan-Salisbury School System to put an immediate moratorium on the elementary school bible classes involving “young, impressionable elementary school students.” 

Elliott wrote that the district’s ill-advised decision to offer elementary bible classes calls into question the legitimacy of the bible classes also being taught in the middle schools and high school. FFRF is asking the district to thoroughly investigate all such classes. 

Elliot headed off any justification that students can apparently be excused from the bible classes, writing that “suggesting that children who do not wish to be subjected to religious activity at their school should be segregated from their classmates is reprehensible.” 

“Parents should not be required to excuse students from constitutional violations, and segregating students based on religious beliefs, or lack thereof, is not a way to get around prohibitions on religious activity in public schools,” he continued. 

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker noted that FFRF resoundingly won a federal court case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004, challenging similar weekly bible classes in Rhea County (Dayton), Tenn. “It’s absolutely shocking,” Barker said, “that 66 years after the Supreme Court’s McCollum ruling, we would still see such a flagrant violation imposed on such a young captive audience.”

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