by Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for American United for Separation of Church and State and assistant editor of the organization’s monthly magazine, Church & State.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group based in Arizona, persuaded 33 pastors nationwide to defy federal tax law last Sunday and endorse candidates from the pulpit. Today, Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate six of those churches whose actions were most egregious.
The Religious Right seems determined to provoke a showdown over the issue of pulpit politicking. I’m not sure why. Religious Right groups have already lost this case once before. In 1992, Americans United reported a church in Binghamton, N.Y., that in late October placed a full-page newspaper ad advising people not to vote for Bill Clinton.
The Church at Pierce Creek lost it tax-exempt status, and, aided by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson, sued to get it back. The church lost. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously that the IRS acted within the scope of its authority. The court rejected arguments that the IRS had violated the church’s free-speech or freedom of religion rights, noting that tax exemption is a benefit that comes with conditions. One of those conditions is no politicking. In light of the precedent in the Branch Ministries v. Rossotti case, another test case seems foolhardy.
Furthermore, Americans in record numbers are telling pollsters that they do not support pulpit politicking. Last week, the Baptist Press released a new LifeWay Research poll that found that 75 percent of Americans do not believe “it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office.” In addition, 85 percent think it is not “appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates for public office.” Eighty-seven percent do not “believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service.” A majority supports revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that violate the law.
Number like this should tell us something: Americans attend houses of worship for spiritual reasons, not political ones. They want to get closer to God and enjoy fellowship among a community of believers. Americans don’t go to church to get a list of candidate endorsements. Churches, to put it simply, are not political action committees and should not act like them.
Most clergy in America understand this. They have no interest in politicizing their pulpits or driving wedges into their congregations. The few who can’t grasp this concept and insist on signing up with reckless stunts promoted by the ADF can look forward to some interesting visits from the IRS.