Respectfully Submitted by Lawrence Rafferty (rafflaw)-Guest Blogger
In light of the ever-increasing influence on National and local politics by churches and clergy, I was interested in the recent news that over 1,000 churches will be challenging the IRS by telling their parishioners who they want them to vote for in the upcoming national elections. The event is dubbed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” by its organizers and it is designed to challenge the IRS on its prohibition of churches from intertwining politics and religion, as a requirement of maintaining their tax-free status.
‘ “It is a head-on constitutional challenge.” The Johnson amendment in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits tax-exempt charities and churches from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate. The IRS has been reluctant to revoke churches’ tax-exempt status for violating the more than 50-year-old IRS rule, but the agency has issued written warnings to dozens of churches.” Raw Story
The event is slated for October 7th and the organizers claim that they are trying to force the IRS to pull the tax-free status from churches to test the constitutionality of the IRS on what the churches claim is a restriction on the pastors and churches right of free speech. Of course, not all churches back this challenge of the tax-free laws. “Americans United for Church and State has pushed back against the event, sending letters to 60,000 houses of worship that urge them to obey federal tax law. “People don’t join churches because they want to be told how to vote,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Our letter reminds religious leaders about what the law requires, why it makes sense and how it could affect them.” Raw Story
While I back the pastors rights of free speech, I do not agree that churches and religious clergy have the right to free speech from the pulpit and the right to a tax-free status. If any church wants to tell its followers to back or vote a specific political party, they have the absolute right to do that under the Freedom of Speech. The real question is can these same churches still claim their tax-free status?
Do Churches and clergy violate the Separation of Church and State when they take advantage of the tax laws as a religious entity, but yet preach for specific God or church friendly candidates from the pulpit? I know this issue not only brings politicians into conflict, but as we have seen above, it even brings churches into conflict with one another. Is the solution just banning all political speech from the pulpit, or should the IRS drop all churches tax free status?
Does this discussion put Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state in jeopardy? Was Justice Black in error when he backed the Jeffersonian concept in the 1947 Supreme Court decision in Everson V. United States, that also discussed the Reynolds v. United states decision? “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.” Reynolds v. United States, supra, at 164.” Cornell.edu
I realize that many pastors and members of the clergy for a variety of faiths, routinely “violate” this IRS rule now. I have actually been in church and heard priests preach for specific candidates or political parties, as well as preach for or against certain government issues. It personally makes me feel uncomfortable to hear the church being used for such political and partisan purposes. How does it make you feel? Is the Separation of Church and State worth protecting?
I also disagreed when priest or nuns run for political office because of the religious vows of obedience to the Bishops and the Pope that they are required to take. Should any citizen be concerned when any member of the clergy runs for political office? Without a strong wall separating the Church from the State, can anyone’s religion be safe? What do you think?