Pastors to challenge IRS over political endorsements
In a matter of days, some 1,400 American pastors are planning to break the law.
And they’re likely to get away with it.
As part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” on Oct. 7, religious leaders across the country will endorse political candidates — an act that flies in the face of Internal Revenue Service rules about what tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, can and cannot do.
The IRS says tax-exempt organizations, or what they refer to as a 501(c)(3), are prohibited from participating in partisan campaigning for or against political candidates. Yet, despite what’s in the rules, the agency continues to struggle to do anything about those who defy the law.
Though the regulation has been in place since 1954, in 2009, the U.S. District Court of Minnesota ruled the IRS no longer had the appropriate staff to investigate places of worship after a reorganization changed who in the agency had the authority to launch investigations.
New procedures for conducting church audits have been pending since 2009, which has left the IRS virtually impotent in conducting any kind of new investigations. The IRS did not respond to questions seeking comment.
Despite the lack of manpower, organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal ministry that first launched “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in 2008, say they take the IRS restriction seriously — even as they disagree with it.
“Every pastor and every church has the right to decide what their pastor preaches from the pulpit and to not have that dictated to them by the IRS,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly the Alliance Defense Fund.
Jim Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif., says the prohibition has caused religious leaders to shy away from speaking about what they see as theological truth, such as the belief that homosexuality is biblically unacceptable.
“The line is being slid so fast, so far, that people no longer recognize authentic biblical preaching and they’re calling it political,” he said.
Today’s parishioners, he said, are starving for religious leaders to act as “the moral compass of society.” Garlow said he’s witnessed pastors who boldly speak on political issues receive standing ovations.
But the Rev. Susan Russell, an associate pastor at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., which the IRS investigated several years ago over a 2004 antiwar sermon it claimed was illegal, said churches should dedicate themselves to being robustly political without being partisan. [More]