Saturday, October 1, 2011

Politics in the pulpit? Fine. Just give up your tax break.

This weekend, hundreds of pastors, including some of the nation’s evangelical leaders, will climb into their pulpits to preach about American politics, flouting a decades-old law that prohibits tax-exempt churches and other charities from campaigning on election issues.

The sermons, on what is called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, essentially represent a form of biblical bait, an effort by some churches to goad the Internal Revenue Service into court battles over the divide between religion and politics.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit legal defense group whose founders include James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, sponsors the annual event, which started with 33 pastors in 2008. This year, Glenn Beck has been promoting it, calling for 1,000 religious leaders to sign on and generating additional interest at the beginning of a presidential election cycle.

“There should be no government intrusion in the pulpit,” said the Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., who led preachers in the battle to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. “The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say.”

Here's the thing: If preachers want to endorse candidates from the pulpit, I have no problem with that. All I ask is that they give up their tax break.

That's what the debate—to the extent there is one—is about. Churches, as a general rule, don't pay taxes. We can discuss the merits of that, but one of the rules that go along with that special status is that they can't advocate for particular candidates. (They can—and do—advocate for particular causes.) And that's not a restriction on churches alone. Nonprofit organizations of all stripes—including very political stripes, like the Center for American Progress—give up the right to advocate for candidates in exchange for the official designation as a "nonprofit" and all the advantages that brings.

Nobody's keeping James Garlow from speaking his mind, in other words. But the tax-exempt status means, essentially, that the rest of us are already subsidizing his religious efforts. There's no reason we should have to subsidize his political efforts, as well.


namefromthepast said...

I assume, to be congruent in your steadfast principled beliefs, your next entry will be to encourage groups like Media Matters to give up their tax exempt status as well.

Joel said...

When they endorse a candidate, absolutely. That's all that's at stake here.

namefromthepast said...

It isn't as simple as endorsing a candidate or not.

From IRS code: 501(c)3 charitable organization “may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities...absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office...public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” Just to ensure that this is perfectly clear, the IRS adds a Media Matters and CAP killer-“voter education … with evidence of bias that … have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”

Anyone who chooses to pick on either-but not both-conservative and liberal tax-exempt groups is going to look foolish.