The pastors’ advocacy could violate the Internal Revenue Service’s rules against political speech with the purpose of triggering IRS investigations.
About 40 pastors from across the country, reportedly including Ohio, plan to be part of the protest.
They argue that the First Amendment’s free-speech rights should override tax laws.
If the IRS moves to revoke the churches’ tax-exempt status, the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian legal group that organized the protest, said it will take its case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt groups to support or oppose political candidates publicly.
“It’s the job of the pastor to determine the content of his sermon, not the IRS,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. “Pastors have a right to speak about biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment.”
The protest, called the Pulpit Initiative, has been denounced by a wide range of religious and civil rights groups that stress the importance of the separation of church and state.
Bishop John Favalora of the Archdiocese of Miami said in a statement that no Catholic priests or parishes in his archdiocese will participate because “the role of the church is not to be like the ‘party boss’ who goes around telling people how to vote.”
The Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is a leader of the opposition to the Pulpit Initiative. “Houses of worship exist to enrich people’s spiritual lives, not act like political machines that issue marching orders to voters,” he said.
An exemption from taxation is a privilege, not a right, Mr. Lynn said, and nonprofit groups that defy the tax laws do so at the risk of losing their exemption.
Americans United planned on sending representatives to participating churches to review Sunday’s sermons and decide whether the clergy should be reported to the IRS.
But as of yesterday, the Alliance Defense Fund had divulged the name of only one participant, the Rev. Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church in Minnesota.
“They’re being vague about how many people they have and who they have,” Mr. Lynn said, “which is kind of weird because if the point is to make a direct challenge to the IRS, it’s kind of hard to do if they’re hiding under a rock while they’re doing it.”
The Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, organized a counterprotest last week urging clergy to preach on the importance of church-state separation.
Mr. Williams had been recruited to participate in the Pulpit Initiative but instead joined with more than 50 clergy nationwide in filing a complaint with the IRS against the Alliance Defense Fund. The clergy asked the tax agency to bar the group from recruiting churches and to investigate whether the Arizona nonprofit had violated its own tax-exempt status by organizing the protest.
The IRS has barred nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, from supporting or opposing political candidates since 1954, when Congress approved an amendment sponsored by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson.
The Alliance Defense Fund said that prior to the Johnson amendment, churches were free to engage in partisan politics.
“Historically, churches had frequently and fervently spoken for and against candidates for government office,” the group said in a statement. It cited sermons preached against Thomas Jefferson for being a deist and against William Howard Taft because he was a Unitarian.
“Churches have too long feared the loss of tax-exempt status arising from speech in the pulpit about candidates for office. Rather than risk confrontation, pastors have self-censored their speech,” the statement said.
The group encouraged ministers to “confront the IRS directly and reclaim the expressive rights guaranteed to them in the United States Constitution.”
“Religion has been vitally important to our country’s civil life from the beginning and I think it should not be censored on important issues of our times,” Mr. Gillen said.
He said the tax laws are “chilling the ability of church organizations to relate their faith to the lives of ordinary people in their congregations,” and that activists have “increasingly used the IRS tax codes as a hammer to bludgeon their political adversaries.”
Mr. Gillen noted that the pulpit politickers will take a major financial risk because if churches lose their tax exemptions, donations no longer are tax-deductible.
Howard Friedman, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Toledo, pointed out that clergy have the same rights as anyone else to get involved in partisan politics — as long as they do so away from the pulpit. “This only has to do with tax-exempt groups,” Mr. Friedman said. “Clergy wearing their private hats can go out all they want and talk about political candidates.”
He said the IRS restrictions are welcomed by most clerics because they free them from any political pressures.
A member of a congregation might threaten to stop donating, or to offer a large contribution, if a cleric endorses a candidate, Mr. Friedman said.
“In some ways it’s a good excuse for churches to resist what, in a tight election, could be a lot of pressure from influential members,” Mr. Friedman said.
The Rev. Tony Scott, pastor of the Church on Strayer in Monclova Township, said even if the IRS allowed him to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, he never would do so.
“We have all kinds of people in our church, Republicans and Democrats and independents, and for me to use my office to impose my political opinion on them would be a violation of my ethics as a minister,” he said.
Bruce Friedland, an IRS spokesman in Washington, said the agency is aware of the Pulpit Initiative “and will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate.”
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