Ministers to Preach
May 9, 2008; Page A5
A conservative legal-advocacy group is enlisting ministers to use their pulpits to preach about election candidates this September, defying a tax law that bars churches from engaging in politics.
Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., nonprofit, is hoping at least one sermon will prompt the Internal Revenue Service to investigate, sparking a court battle that could get the tax provision declared unconstitutional. Alliance lawyers represent churches in disputes with the IRS over alleged partisan activity.
The action marks the latest attempt by a conservative organization to help clergy harness their congregations to sway elections. The protest is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 28, a little more than a month before the general election, in a year when religious concerns and preachers have been a regular part of the political debate.
It also comes as the IRS has increased its investigations of churches accused of engaging in politics. Sen. Barack Obama’s denomination, the United Church of Christ, has said it was under investigation after it allowed the Democratic presidential candidate to address 10,000 church members last year. Last summer, the tax agency said it was reviewing complaints against 44 churches for activities in the 2006 election cycle. Churches found to be in violation can be fined or lose their tax exemptions.
The section of the tax code barring nonprofits from intervening in political campaigns has long frustrated clergy. Many ministers consider the provision an inappropriate government intrusion, blocking the duty of clergy to advise congregants.
Alliance fund staff hopes 40 or 50 houses of worship will take part in the action, including clerics from liberal-leaning congregations. About 80 ministers have expressed interest, including one Catholic priest, says Erik Stanley, the Alliance’s senior legal counsel.
“The government should not be telling the church what it should or should not be saying,” says the Rev. Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, who hopes to take part in the Alliance effort. Mr. Riggle says he told his congregation from the pulpit, before the Texas primary in March, that he was supporting former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee for president. “As a pastor, a private citizen, I can speak for myself. The IRS cannot quench my voice,” he says.
In recent years, attempts by members of Congress to change the law have failed. “Tax exemption is a benefit, and it comes with conditions,” says Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit that has filed more than a dozen complaints in the past year with the IRS, accusing nonprofits of tax-code violations. “So if any pastor out there feels he is gagged or can’t speak on partisan politics…forgo the tax exemption and say what you want.”
In 1954, Congress made it illegal for nonprofits, including churches, to endorse or publicly oppose political candidates or to intervene in candidates’ elections, although they are free to take sides on issues. Only one church has challenged this, unsuccessfully. The U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled in 2000 that the IRS didn’t violate constitutional rights when it revoked the tax-exempt status of Branch Ministries of Binghamton, N.Y., which had bought newspaper ads opposing Bill Clinton’s candidacy.
Some legal scholars are hoping for a new test case. Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, says a church might make a successful claim that the federal government is burdening the free exercise of religion and cannot do so without a compelling state interest.
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