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Churches to Obama: Tax Us, We Dare You

On Sunday, October 7, pastors around the country will try to bait the federal government into investigating them by preaching explicitly partisan sermons. As part of a conservative movement organizers call “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” some religious leaders will endorse Mitt Romney from the pulpit. Others may refrain from an endorsement but vigorously criticize President Obama. And some will tell their congregations that a good Christian can only vote for a candidate who opposes gay marriage and abortion. Then they’ll send tapes of their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service in the hopes of being audited.

The point of this exercise—now in its fifth year—is twofold. Federal law prohibits tax-exempt organizations from participating in partisan politicking, and conservative activists want to invite an investigation by the IRS so they can challenge the law in court. And if an audit of churches by the IRS provides fuel for the charge that the Obama administration is waging a war on religion, then all the better.

(The law—which is known as the Johnson Amendment because it was introduced by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954—applies to all tax-exempt organizations, including secular non-profits. But those who hope to challenge the law are almost uniformly Christian and politically conservative. So I’ll occasionally use the shorthand of “churches” instead of “houses of worship.”)

Supporters of Pulpit Freedom Sunday argue that current law violates religious liberty and free speech by placing restrictions on what religious leaders can say. Jim Garlow, who pastors Skyline Church in California, is one of the most outspoken activists on this issue. He recently appeared on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News show to charge that the law imposes a “muzzle on churches.” Glenn Beck, who has trumpeted the Pulpit Freedom cause in the past few years, held a tele-conference on Tuesday night that was sponsored by According to a Commonweal magazine reporter who was on the call, Beck said there should be no limits on what priests and other religious leaders can say about politics, telling listeners: “If priests can’t speak out on public issues, then what’s the Church good for?” 

Let’s consider this claim. In order to believe that churches are being censored by the government, you have to accept that religious organizations have not only the right to engage in partisan speech and activities but also the right to be exempt from federal taxes and the right to accept donations that are tax-deductible. There simply is no constitutional right that covers the latter. The tax-exempt status for churches is a monetary benefit given to them by the government, as is the rule allowing individuals to deduct their contributions to religious organizations.

It’s quite simple. If a church wants to endorse a candidate and engage in campaign activities, there are absolutely no restrictions preventing it from doing so. But it must pay federal taxes, and its donors cannot deduct their contributions. Additionally, a pastor can preach about same-sex marriage or immigration reform or abortion or economic justice. But he cannot tell parishioners that they must support a particular candidate because of their views on one of those issues. Thechurches involved in Pulpit Sunday want to have it both ways. They want to use tax-deductible donations to participate in campaigns, and no doubt there are plenty of political donors who would prefer to deduct their political contributions by sending them through religious organizations.

Many churches are already engaging in government-subsidized politicking. An Upper Eastside Catholic church prompted an uproar recently when a priest printed a letter from several former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican in the church bulletin. The ambassadors, who launched a “Catholics for Romney” effort in the summer, made their case for supporting Mitt Romney—as partisan an appeal as you could find. In response, 20,000 progressive Catholics signed a letter of protest to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who runs the Archdiocese of New York. Dolan has so far refused to comment on the situation. 

Religious leaders have long been active in political movements—and partisan campaigns—but Americans are growing less tolerant of that intermingling of the religious and the political. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that more Americans now oppose church involvement in politics than support it, a shift from 15 years ago. In their latest survey, 54 percent of Americans were opposed to churches expressing views on social and political questions—an activity that is perfectly legal, as opposed to partisan endorsements and politicking. And the partisan divide that has emerged on the question is startling. In 1996, 42 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats said that churches should stay out of politics. Today, the breakdown is 44 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of Democrats, and 58 percent of Independents.

The willingness—and indeed eagerness—of many conservative pastors and priests to flout the law by endorsing Romney may not swing the election in the Republican’s favor. And a court challenge of the law under a potential second Obama term might just devolve into yet another culture war charge that Democratic administrations and activist judges are restricting the rights of religious Americans. But there must be some alternative to the status quo, in which select religious organizations enthusiastically engage in government-subsidized campaigning while happily claiming their tax exemption.