A group of Christian pastors has organized a movement, called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, to defy the IRS rule which prohibits political speech from the pulpit. Any nonprofit organization with a 501(c)(3) tax exemption is required to refrain from supporting political candidates. It's OK to support (or oppose) ballot measures.

The Pulpit Freedom pastors are not willing to restrict their preaching.

Pastors across the country have posted videos on the Internet of their direct or thinly veiled political endorsements and sent letters to the Internal Revenue Service, daring the agency to revoke their tax-exempt status for political speech.

So far, nothing has happened. But something should. To me, this attitude of the churches is unreasonable. The idea behind giving a tax exemption is that the charitable and "faith based" activities of churches are supposed to be doing some of the social services work of the government.

Local governments exempt churches from property taxes. This is why we see so many expensive religious edifices on large lots.

I belong to the Gray Panthers, which has a 501(c)(3) exemption. We advocate for ballot meaures, but our organization refrains from supporting the campaigns of people running for city council, mayor, or any other political office. Occasionally, this constraint is a bother; we have to keep candidate advocacy out of our newsletter and off our website. But in general, being prevented from supporting candidates is not an onerous constraint. Why should the rules on tax exemption be different for churches?

Part of the reason is the ambiguous attitude of our governments toward religion. We treat churches delicately because we want to guarantee freedom of religion. Our Constitution forbids establishment of a national church; it also forbids restrictions on the practice of religions.

If people belonging to a church organized a separate group to do political activity (a PAC), then the PAC's religious affiliation would not be a problem. The associated church would remain tax-exempt and the PAC would pay income tax and property tax. Contributions to political PAC are not tax deductible. The same would apply to a religious PAC.

I suppose the preachers would have to to preach their political sermons during meetings of the PAC, not as part of formal church services.

Larry Ihrig, the longtime pastor of Celebration Christian Center in Livermore, is quoted as saying “The intention of the separation of church and state wasn’t the church’s encroachment on government, but government’s encroachment into the church. If I talk about an issue of the violation of biblical truth, then it ceases to be political. It’s a spiritual issue.”

Of course it's rather easy to couch political advocacy in spiritual terms.

This tax exemption issue is not strictly a church-state separation problem. The political churches are not imposing their religion on anyone. The political preaching is not aimed at the general public. It would be different if the preacher, representing his church, were to go out on the campaign trail to support a candidate. That would definitely provoke resentment, because the tax exemption of the church looks like a subsidy to the church's political activity.

We could do as the pastors desire and lift all limits on political advocacy. But then what would be the reason for granting a tax exemption to a non-profit organization? Is being non-profit a good thing in itself, regardless of whether the organization deals with homelessness, education, motorcycling or politics?


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