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Ana Venegas/The Orange County Register/Zuma Press/Newscom

Pulpit politics

Religion | Pastors who endorse candidates fight to keep their tax exemption; others say that's not what the church should be about

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

The people in Curt Parker's pews are used to hearing politics from the pulpit. Parker, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Avoca in New York, makes a habit of speaking out on political issues. So when he endorsed Sen. John McCain from the pulpit on Sept. 30, it was nothing new. Parker has endorsed candidates before.

This time, though, Parker joined 30 other pastors nationwide in a controversial move to provoke IRS investigations and incite a Supreme Court case, as part of the Alliance Defense Fund's Pulpit Freedom Initiative. The pastors endorsed or condemned candidates in defiance of an IRS regulation that prohibits pastors from making pulpit endorsements if they want to keep their church's tax-exempt status. While the ADF condemns the regulation as a violation of the free exercise of religion, others see legal and theological objections to pastoral endorsements.

The ADF is challenging a 1954 amendment that sets limits on the political activities of not just churches but any nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization. Pastors are free to do anything short of direct or indirect participation in a candidate's political campaign; they may, for instance, publish voter guides, publicize a candidate's voting record, and even engage in minimal lobbying. The regulation prohibits outright endorsements, forming political action committees, giving campaign contributions, or rating candidates. Pastors and other nonprofit leaders are free to endorse candidates as long as they do so as private citizens and not as representatives of their churches.

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The ADF says these limitations violate the free exercise of religion. Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the ADF, said, "What we're arguing is that the government has no business telling pastors what they can and can't say. . . . It's the job of the pastor, not the IRS, to determine the content of his sermon."

But the question is not whether pastors have the right to endorse candidates from the pulpit. No one-not even the IRS-would dispute that pastors are free to say what they will as long as they are also willing to give up their tax-exempt status. The real question is whether tax exemption is a privilege that comes with reasonable conditions, or a constitutional right.

Stanley contends that tax exemption is a constitutional right that pastors cannot afford to give up: "I believe that the Constitution mandates that churches be tax-exempt." Stanley argues that if the government is allowed to tax churches, it takes the first step toward destroying the free exercise of religion, giving it the ability to tax those whose views it disfavors and excuse those whose views it favors: "Tax exemption can be used as a powerful weapon to suppress ideas and to suppress viewpoints." Stanley said removing the tax exemption creates a greater risk of entanglement with the state and the church.

J. Brent Walker, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said he disagrees with the ADF, since pastors already have freedom of expression from the pulpit: "The pulpit is free. Preachers can preach the gospel, interpret scripture, preach on the great moral issues of the day, and also, if they want to give up their tax exemption, endorse candidates." The problem, Walker said, is that some pastors want both unfettered speech and tax exemption.

According to Walker, the Supreme Court has not found a constitutional right to tax exemption. In Walz v. Tax Commission of City of New York, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution allows tax exemption. But in Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization, the court argued that states are not required to provide an exemption, and that taxes don't necessarily burden the free exercise of religion. Based on precedent, it seems that the Supreme Court will not consider tax exemption a constitutional right.

But setting aside the question of whether a pastor has the legal right to endorse a candidate, is it wise and prudent for pastors to do so? This is a question the ADF repeatedly states that it does not presume to answer. However, it is a question their 31 participating pastors have apparently answered yes.

Parker said he believes he has a moral obligation to speak out on political issues since a nation rises or falls based on its obedience to God's moral law. Speaking out on political issues is part of being culturally relevant and refusing to compartmentalize his faith. Parker said, "I think my relationship with Jesus covers all aspect of my life. I don't think it's slotted in some things and excluded from others. . . . I should be able to do whatever the Lord is leading me to say without any fear of retribution or punishment or investigation."

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