Talking Politics and Religion
"(Churches are blatantly and deliberately flaunting (sic, 1) the electioneering restrictions..." Freedom From Religion Foundation. (2)
The Foundation, representing atheists and agnostics, has filed a federal court suit claiming that the IRS has not enforced the laws that restrain charitable organizations from electioneering. In particular, the Foundation points to Pulpit Freedom Sunday (October 7) in which 1,500 clergymen endorsed a candidate from the pulpit. Is the Foundation right?
Clearly, anyone has the right to make any statement anywhere under the First Amendment. The entire dispute is about the tax deductibility of contributions to entities (such as churches) that endorse candidates or political parties. The Freedom From Religion Foundation seeks to require the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of those entities that do so.
Although "church and state" should be separate, in practice people's views on public affairs (such as legislation and military service) are often derived from their religious opinions. For example, the great struggles of the Nineteenth Century against slavery and alcohol were both derived from religious perspectives, and churches were major players in both controversies. In the mid-Twentieth Century the struggles for integration and civil rights were launched through black churches, and it is no coincidence that the greatest leader of these struggles was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister. The earliest opposition to the War in Vietnam came from pacifist churches, whose members enjoyed legal exemption from the draft. Nearly all the opposition to legalization of abortion has also come from the churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that every valid law must have a secular purpose, but in truth the driving force behind passage of some valid laws is the religious belief of the legislators. For example, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which limits federally-recognized marriages to those between a man and a woman, reflects the widespread (faith-based) belief that homosexual activity is morally wrong. Yet the law can be defended on the secular grounds that benefits provided under the Social Security Act were intended for heterosexual couples, and it would cost the government many millions of dollars to provide these benefits to same-sex couples.
So a line must be drawn between moral advocacy, which is the absolute right of every person and group in America, including those holding tax-exempt status under the IRS code, and political action, which is just grounds for revocation of tax-exempt status. In my view, merely endorsing a candidate from the pulpit makes insignificant use of the money and other resources of a church or synagogue, since the physical facilities are no more than a setting for the endorsement and are not depleted in any way by the words of the minister or priest. Therefore, I disagree with the objection of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the Pulpit Freedom endorsements. Such recommendations, by themselves, should have no bearing on the tax-exempt status of a church or other religious institution.
However, if a church mails campaign literature, displays political posters or allows its building to be used (free of charge) for a political rally, then the church has provided an in-kind contribution to a political cause, and the contribution has been funded by tax-exempt donations. (3) That is over the line between advocacy and electioneering, and such activities should be grounds for revocation of tax-exempt status.
I contend that the Federal Court will rule that the Foundation has no standing to sue the Government, since the interpretation of federal laws is an executive function, and the Foundation and its members are not materially adversely affected by the policies that IRS enforces. This would be consistent with previous rulings against tax-payer suits brought by people against wars and other federal activities and policies.
Gerald S Glazer
(1) They mean "flouting."
(2) Scott Bauer of the Associated Press, Nov. 16, 2012.
(3) Unlike a sermon,the right to displaly a poster has a monetary value, which can be determined by the rent charged by commercial billboards for similar space.