Church Politicking Is Uncivil Disobedience

Statement by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-Presidents

A well-heeled extremist legal outfit is calling on priests and pastors throughout the nation to defy IRS regulations by using their tax-exempt pulpits this Sunday, Sept. 28, to endorse candidates in the presidential race.

The unethical so-called Pulpit Initiative is advanced by the troublemaking Alliance Defense Fund. The Fund seems to be advocating no less than organized crime–uncivil disobedience. The Wall Street Journal yesterday reported some 30 ministers have said they will participate. Rev. Jody Hice, of Bethelehm First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, Ga., told the Journal he will endorse Sen. John McCain: “As a pastor, I have the right to speak biblical truth without being punished for it.” (Just where in the bible can we find that reference to John McCain?)

Churches struck a deal with government, and now some of them want to break their promise.

Why shouldn’t ministers politick from the pulpit? Because churches don’t pay taxes. Tax exemption is granted with the understanding that tax-exempt entities are limiting their activities to religious, charitable or educational endeavors. Exempt entities are in essence subsidized by taxpayers, who (not to belabor the obvious) pay more so tax-exempt groups don’t have to pay property tax, sales tax in many states, and so on. If a house on your block goes off the tax rolls because it is claimed as a church rectory, you and your neighbors are soon going to be paying higher taxes to make up the difference. Ironically, churches often get better government services, such as free snow removal, police protection and traffic control, than paying businesses.

In this gentleperson’s agreement, it is understood the charity will not take advantage of its privileged status to interfere with partisan politics. It is also the law that tax-exempt entities must be scrupulous in not misusing their tax-exempt status to influence the outcome of political elections.

(Unfortunately, IRS regulations currently permit churches free reign to influence congregations over the outcome of controversial referenda. Referenda in which churches chime in notably include the campaign to amend state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage–a campaign which is exclusively promoted by churches and religious groups. Antigay and antiabortion initiatives are often placed on election-year ballots by church groups and their legislative champions in a bald attempt to get out the religious-right vote for Congressional and presidential elections. The lack of regulation of church speech on referenda has already caused untold mischief to civil rights. The “hands-off” policy by the IRS over referenda has handed the religious right a tool to wield so it can mold elections, state constitutions and public policy in its favor.)

The purpose of the mass Sunday defiance called by the Alliance Defense Fund is to force a test case that would end the IRS policy barring churches from engaging in partisanship and politics. If the IRS policy were revoked, the public would be forced to subsidize partisan, political speech at churches. Churches would be given an unfair advantage to influence the outcome of elections, and to influence politicians seeking their approval (and their congregations’ votes). It would create a shadow government of influential churches and church leaders to whom politicians would kow-tow.

Look what is happening in this election year even with the intact IRS prohibition against church politicking! Candidates are being given religious tests for public office, are wearing religion on their sleeves and are showing up for Q&A at televised “forums” in megachurches. Imagine what would happen if pastors and priests coud openly use their pulpits to endorse? They would not limit their “men of God” standing to intimidate parishioners, but would be exhorting voters 24/7 over their tax-exempt airwaves, in their tax-exempt megachurches, on their church marquees and other tax-exempt forms of religious mass media.

Donors can currently give money to churches with no caps, no accountability. Churches are not required to account for their finances or activities to the government. Other exempt groups must file detailed annual 990 Forms with the IRS, which are made available to the public, accounting for every penny. We have already had a chilling lesson in the harm that can occur from such lack of church accountability. Look at Rev. Jim Jones (photographed with every conceivable politician of his day), who had no trouble smuggling a cache of weapons, hundreds of foster children and untold millions out of the United States. Had Rev. Jones been accountable to the government for what his church was doing with its money, the 1978 Jonestown massacre might have been averted.

Churches would inevitably employ tax-exempt donations for political ends. Political churches enboldened by such a development would make the perfect cover for every form of political intrigue, payola and money laundering. Church and state would each become deeply corrupted.

If a church want to engage in politics, the answer is obvious. Just play by the rules and give up tax exemption.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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