This Sunday, 35 Religious Leaders Will Break the Law and Endorse Politicians By RUSSELL GOLDMAN
Sept. 25, 2008-
On Sunday, Pastor Jody Hice of Bethlehem, Ga., a man who takes the Bible literally and has never committed a crime, will stand before God and the 1,300 members of his congregation and willfully break the law.
Hice is one of 35 religious leaders from 22 states who this weekend will intentionally violate a ban on church leaders making political speeches from their pulpits, in hopes of forcing the issue into the federal courts.
"On Sunday, I'll be endorsing John McCain. I believe that endorsement will be a religious statement more than a political statement. But, the IRS says that for me to speak Biblical truth is against the law," Hice told ABCNews.com.
Churches and other nonprofit groups such as charities and state-run universities do not have to pay taxes. That exemption, however, comes with a price. Churches, and by extension the pastors who serve them in an official capacity, are not allowed to endorse or oppose political candidates.
The ministers participating in this weekend's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which is organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian advocacy group, are actively "asking" to be investigated by the IRS. While the ADF believes such investigations will create the opportunity to challenge the ban in court, the organization recognizes that the churches risk losing their tax-exempt status, which could potentially bankrupt them.
Hice, pastor at the Bethlehem First Baptist Church, said his endorsement is informed by his interpretation of the Bible and is therefore a religious speech protected by the First Amendment. That right, enshrined in the Constitution, should trump a 54-year-old tax law, he said.
"The IRS is violating the Constitution by denying pastors the right to speak Biblical truth from the pulpit," Hice said. "I'm not violating the law; it is the IRS that is violating the Constitution. What is freedom of religious expression, if not a pastor's right to tell our churches what the Bible says?"
Hice says by endorsing Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, he is giving his congregation the same sort of moral advice gleaned from interpreting the Bible he gives in his sermons every week.
"I'll be endorsing McCain solely from the perspective of a fair evaluation of where he and [Democratic nominee Sen. Barack] Obama stand on moral issues addressed in the Bible. Abortion was a moral issue before it was a political issue," he said.
The IRS says it is going to keep an eye on the pastors and take action if necessary.
"We are aware of recent press reports, and will monitor the situation and take action as appropriate," said IRS spokesman Robert Marvin.
That action, however, might not result in revoking the churches' tax-exempt status, which would prevent the ADF from having grounds to fight out the issue in court.
Not since 1992, when the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., lost its tax-exempt status for taking out an ad urging people to vote against Bill Clinton, has a church lost its status.
In 2006, the IRS received 237 complaints and selected 100 groups — 44 churches and 56 nonchurches — for examination. More than half of those cases remain under investigation, according to IRS statistics.
"However, the IRS did substantiate improper political activity in 26 cases and issued written advisories. So far, there are no revocation recommendations," according to an agency report on the statistics.
In 2004, the IRS selected 110 cases for examination and revoked the tax-exempt status of five organizations. Of those groups, none were churches.
More often than not, the IRS has warned churches that have been found to violate section 501c3 — the part of the tax code that prohibits nonprofit groups from political speech — with letters telling them not to do it again.
"Education has been and remains the first goal of the IRS' program on political activity by tax-exempt organizations," said Lois G. Lerner, director of the agency's Exempt Organizations Division, in a statement.
In an effort to minimize disruptions, the ADF will not release the names and churches of all the ministers participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
"Each pastor will write and deliver their own sermon. We don't know who they're endorsing or opposing," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for ADF.
Stanley said the participating pastors each knew that delivering the sermons could result in their losing their tax-exempt status. He also recognized that if the IRS chose not to pursue the churches, the fund's plans to turn the matter into a Constitutional cause celebre would be dashed.
"Either way we'll be successful. If the IRS decides not to come after the churches, then we'll do it even bigger at the next election. We'll keep doing it until IRS responds," he said.
Opponents of Pulpit Freedom Sunday have decided not to go after the individual ministers but the ADF itself, claiming the organization cannot make a federal case because the group has violated the law by instructing ministers on how to break it.
Marcus Owens, a Washington lawyer and former director of the IRS' Exempt Organizations Division, has filed a complaint with the IRS on behalf of religious leaders opposed to the day of political speech.
"Parishioners, lawyers cannot council or assist others on how to violate the tax law. They can tell clients what law requires, they can tell them the penalties, but they can't assist them. The ADF, by instructing churches and clergy on how to violate the law, may actually put them out of the business of representing those churches," he said.
Critics contend that the pastors' "free speech" argument is specious because taxpayers should not have to subsidize pastors' political activities with which they do not agree.
"Tax exemption is not a right; it's a privilege that comes with certain restrictions," Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, previously told ABCNews.com.
"There is a very simple test religious leaders can use to determine if they're violating the law," he said. "Ask yourself, 'Is what I'm doing intended to help someone's candidacy?' If the answer is 'yes,' don't do it."
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