MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This Sunday, more than 30 pastors across the country are planning to endorse or announce their opposition to political candidates. This would be a flagrant violation of a law that bans tax-exempt organizations from involvement in political campaigns. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains why the pastors are doing it.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: On May 18, Pastor Gus Booth walked to the pulpit at Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minnesota. The presidential primaries were still going on. Booth told his 150 congregants that the next president will determine policy on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Then he got personal about the two pro-choice Democratic candidates still standing.
Reverend GUS BOOTH (Pastor, Warroad Community Church): If you're a Christian, you cannot support a candidate like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: 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 they 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.
Reverend BOOTH: Spiritual leaders need to make decisions. 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.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: On Sunday, Booth will give a follow-up sermon endorsing Republican John McCain. This time, he won't be alone. Thirty-three ministers across the country will endorse or oppose a candidate from the pulpit. Two weeks ago, more than a hundred pastors squeezed into a hotel meeting room in Washington to learn about what's being called the Pulpit Initiative, a brainchild of the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund. Attorney Erik Stanley walked them through it.
Mr. ERIK STANLEY (Head, Alliance Defense Fund's Pulpit Initiative; Attorney): If the IRS chooses to come after these churches, we will sue the IRS in federal court.
(Soundbite of applause)
BRADLEY HAGERTY: 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.
Mr. STANLEY: 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 contents of the sermon. And that's unconstitutional. No government official should entangle itself with religion in that way.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Stanley says they will try to take their challenge all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that the more conservative Roberts court will strike down the 54-year-old ban on political preaching. 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...
Ms. CELIA ROADY (Attorney): You simply cannot say to your congregation, you should not vote for candidate X because of candidate X's position on this one issue.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Roady says if a church can endorse a candidate, it is using tax-free dollars, taxpayer money, to subsidize a political campaign. 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.
Reverend ERIC WILLIAMS (Senior Minister, North Congregational United Church of Christ): 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.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Williams is senior minister of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus. Two years ago, he reported two conservative mega-churches for allegedly endorsing a Republican gubernatorial candidate. The IRS investigated one of the churches. He's concerned that pastors in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia will be telling their congregants how to vote.
Reverend WILLIAMS: My concern is that an extreme segment of the - particularly the Christian faith today is seeking to establish themselves as the public religion of our nation.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: 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 U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on political endorsements by charities. I asked Pastor Gus Booth in Minnesota, what if his church loses its tax-exempt status?
Mr. GUS BOOTH (Minnesota Pastor) Big deal.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Booth says he can get it back the next day because churches are automatically tax-exempt. Besides, he says, electing, quote, "godly people" is more important than money." Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.