Mulling the Limits of Freedom of Speech in Churches

The IRS is investigating whether a church in Pasadena, Calif., is abusing its non-profit status by promoting its outspoken antiwar stance. The development has other churches debating how their leaders should walk the line between free speech and preaching.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the first of three reports--Guantanamo diaries from inside the war on terror prism at Guantanamo Bay. First, this. The IRS is investigating an Episcopal congregation in Southern California over politics in the pulpit. Ministers can take stands on issues, especially moral issues, but they need to be careful not to endorse specific candidates 'cause if they do, the congregation might lose its tax-exempt status. NPR's Jason DeRose prepared this report on whether denominations are doing enough to school their pastors in politics in the pulpit.

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JASON DeROSE reporting:

Morning prayer or madents(ph) in the stone chapel of St. John the Divine at Seabury-Western Episcopal Seminary seems a universe away from the more pedestrian concern of tax law. Here, students study the stain-glass subjects of liturgy, Bible, church history and theology. But the special tax-exempt status of congregations is becoming a growing concern for these future Episcopal priests and one now entering the classroom.

Mr. MARK O'BRIEN: Tonight we're going to start just touching on All Saints Pasadena. I'm assuming everybody here knows what's going on.

DeROSE: In Mark O'Brien's course Sex, Money and Real Estate, students study the intersection of civil law and church law. This evening students were abuzz about the possibility a sermon could cause an IRS investigation. Seminarian Cliff Haggenjos is confused about what's allowed and what's not if a church is to keep its tax-exempt status.

Mr. CLIFF HAGGENJOS: Isn't there a pretty strong First Amendment issue here.

Mr. O'BRIEN: No.

Mr. HAGGENJOS: Why not?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Because as I said a moment ago, it's not a right. It's a privilege.

DeROSE: The privilege is not having to pay property or income taxes. Later in the class, seminarian Claudia Wilson was concerned a pastor could get into trouble for preaching peace.

Ms. CLAUDIA WILSON: This sermon dealt with consider your Christian values and then vote your values. And given how much attention was paid in the last election to, quote, "values" and all of the people who were on the Bush side of the election who were preaching from the pulpit to vote for family values, it does seem like selective enforcement of the rule.

DeROSE: What's unusual about the Pasadena case is that the pastor didn't overtly endorse any candidate but rather preached a strongly worded, anti-sermon just days before the 2004 presidential election.

Father GARY HALL (President, Seabury-Western Episcopal Seminary): All of us have been caught off guard by this.

DeROSE: That's Seabury Seminary President Father Gary Hall. He says he's always taught the difference between candidate endorsement and issue advocacy.

Father HALL: But now if they're saying that such advocacy is, in fact, a de facto endorsement of a candidate, that is going to really make it difficult for churches, whether liberal or conservative, to really be involved in the daily political life of their communities.

DeROSE: Hall says the Bible encourages political involvement. Questions of social justice are paramount in the Hebrew prophets and the Christian Gospels, but pastors need to be careful. Many seminaries--Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ--offer courses and workshops in the area of ministry in the law.

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DeROSE: And some are creating Web pages to teach clergy about tax law and freedom of speech.

Mr. LOWELL ALMEN (Secretary, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America): Conceptually, we shifted it to a separate section, so people could find it quicker, section on civil law including tax exemption and church law.

DeROSE: Lowell Almen is secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He says it's important pastors have the right to speak out on moral issues.

Mr. ALMEN: Any hint of government intrusion in religion raises warning flags for us and amounts to a grave concern.

Ms. MELISSA ROGERS (Wake Forest University): Too often ministers come to these issues quite unprepared and are caught almost as if they're deers in the headlights.

DeROSE: Melissa Rogers teaches religion and public policy at Wake Forest University and is the author of the guide "Politics and the Pulpit." She'd like to see even better education, so pastors can avoid raising government concerns and, she says, have been answers for political critics on both sides because...

Ms. ROGERS: Some will distort this area of law because it is attached to an agenda that they have in the culture war.

DeROSE: A war, Rogers says, with people of faith on both sides. Jason DeRose, NPR News, Chicago.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More in a moment from DAY TO DAY.

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