This weekend, 33 ministers are expected to preach a sermon that endorses or opposes a political candidate by name. This would be a flagrant violation of a 54-year-old law that bans tax-exempt organizations from involvement in political campaigns.
This weekend, 33 ministers are expected to preach a sermon that endorses or opposes a political candidate by name. This would be a flagrant violation of a 54-year-old law that bans tax-exempt organizations from involvement in political campaigns. Jeremy Swinborne/iStockphoto.com
On Sunday, more than 30 pastors across the country are expected to preach a sermon that endorses or opposes a political candidate by name. This would be a flagrant violation of a law that bans tax-exempt organizations from involvement in political campaigns.
Among the pastors expected to violate the ban is Pastor Gus Booth.
Booth will endorse Republican nominee John McCain — four months after delivering a sermon opposing the two main candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
In May, Booth told his 150 congregants of the Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn., that the next president will determine policy on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.
"If you're a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton," Booth said.
With that, Booth gleefully zipped by the line barring ministers from engaging in political campaigns. The IRS bars people from endorsing or opposing specific candidates from the pulpit. Booth sent an article about his sermon to the IRS so the agency wouldn't miss it. He and his elders knew he would be jeopardizing the church's tax-exempt status.
But, he says, it's his job to evaluate candidates in light of biblical teachings.
"Bottom line is, I'm a spiritual leader in this community, and spiritual leaders need to make decisions. We need to lead spiritually, and we need to be able to speak about the moral issues of the day. And right now, the moral issues of today are also the political issues of today," he said.
The Pulpit Initiative
On Sunday, 33 ministers will take part in a nationwide effort to violate the 54-year-old ban on political preaching and endorse or oppose a candidate from the pulpit. The effort is called the Pulpit Initiative.
Two weeks ago, more than 100 pastors squeezed into a hotel meeting room in Washington, D.C., to learn about the Pulpit Initiative, a brain child of the conservative legal group, Alliance Defense Fund. Attorney Erik Stanley walked them through it.
"If the IRS chooses to come after these churches, we will sue the IRS in federal court," Stanley said.
Stanley says pastors are fed up. In the past four years, the IRS has stepped up its investigations of clergy. It sent letters to 47 churches, including some liberal ones — not just for explicit endorsements, but also for using code words like pro-choice or pro-life in relation to candidates.
"What's been happening is that the government has been able to go into the pulpits of America, look over the pastor's shoulder, and parse the content of their sermon. And that's unconstitutional," Stanley said. "No government official should entangle itself with religion in that way."
Stanley says the pastors will try to take their challenge all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that the current conservative-leaning composition of the court, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, will strike down the ban. He says the law infringes on the religious speech of ministers.
Celia Roady disagrees. Roady, a lawyer and expert on charities law, says there's nothing to stop pastors from talking about issues in light of scripture. But, she says, "You simply cannot say to your congregation, you should not vote for Candidate X because of Candidate X's position on this one issue. That's simply the line that has been drawn."
Roady says if a church can endorse a candidate, it is using tax-free dollars — taxpayer money — to subsidize a political campaign.
But it's not merely tax deductions that are at stake here, says Ohio Pastor Eric Williams. He says it's also the attempt of some churches to move aggressively into politics.
"I ask myself, 'Hmm. Why would a religious leader want to oppose a candidate? Why would a religious leader want to stand up and ask for my support for a candidate who's running for office?' They want to gain influence in the governmental process," Williams said.
Williams is senior minister of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus. He says he's seen this before. Two years ago, he reported two conservative megachurches for allegedly endorsing a Republican candidate for governor. The IRS investigated one of the churches. Williams is also concerned that pastors in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia will be telling their congregants how to vote.
"My concern is that an extreme segment of the Christian faith today is seeking to establish themselves as the public religion of our nation," Williams said.
Williams and some other ministers have filed a formal complaint with the IRS about the Pulpit Initiative. Several tax attorneys said they believe the churches will ultimately lose. They point out that in 1983, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on political endorsements by charities.
So what will happen if Booth's church in Minnesota loses its tax-exempt status?
"Big deal," he said. He added that he can get it back the next day because churches are automatically tax-exempt.
Besides, he said, electing "Godly people is more important than money."