Over 1,300 churches from all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico have signed up to participate in the Oct. 7 event, promoted as Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Supporters say the day is about expressing their First Amendment rights and advocating for the separation of church and state.
“Censorship of a pastor’s sermon and the internal workings of a church is not separation of church and state; it is governmental control and violates the First Amendment, no matter how you look at it,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the Arizona-based organization that is behind the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event. “It is the pastor’s job to determine what his sermon is going to be, not government’s.”
The Ridgway Christian Center/Praise Him Ministries is fully behind the movement. Last month, the organization produced and broadly distributed a 20-page mailer whose cover proclaims “Honor God! Love your country! VOTE REPUBLICAN!”
Inside, Victoria Hearst, founder and president of the ministry, writes a long article supporting Pulpit Freedom Sunday and challenging the right of the IRS to prohibit tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
“For decades, we Christians have been told that we may not publicly discuss politics or support individual politicians or tell people how to vote in churches, ministries, Christian organizations or at Christian events,” Hearst writes. “That is because the Internal Revenue Service says that this type of free speech – our First Amendment right – is denied to nonprofit organizations.”
Citing material produced by Alliance Defending Freedom, Hearst endorses Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a head-on constitutional challenge to the so-called Johnson Amendment of 1954 that resulted in that portion of the IRS tax code that forbids tax-exempt charities and churches from engaging in partisan politics. The code explicitly states that such entities cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Shortly after the Ridgway Christian Center mailer was distributed, two unnamed Colorado residents reported it to the Washington D.C.-based watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which in turn on Sept. 19 filed a complaint with the IRS, asserting that the mailing represented a “brazen disregard” for the federal law forbidding tax-exempt groups to intervene in partisan politics, and demanding an investigation of Hearst’s ministry.
Rob Boston, AU’s senior policy analyst, said it is fairly rare for his organization to go to such lengths.
“There are probably 350,000 religious congregations in the U.S., including all varieties Christian and non-Christian groups,” Boston said. “The number of pastors and organizations jumping over the line and opposing or endorsing candidates is pretty small; we might report 10 to 15 each year. That it happens at all is shocking; the law is clear that houses of worship and all groups both religious or secular that claim tax-exempt charitable status are forbidden from such action.”
However, he said, the trend has become more prominent in the past few years as more groups “are looking into seriously pushing the envelope” on the issue. Boston pointed to the example of two Catholic bishops who have recently “stepped way over the line” in endorsing pro-life candidates, even as the Conference of Catholic Bishops has advised its membership not to intervene in partisan politics.
AU has also recently issued complaints to the IRS against churches in El Paso and New York City for endorsing presidential candidate Mitt Romney in church bulletins.
Boston stressed that pulpit politicking is a bipartisan phenomenon. “Pastors can speak out on issues and that’s OK,” he said. “It’s only intervention in political campaigns that is a problem.”
The Ridgway Christian Center, in exhorting people to “vote Republican,” is endorsing a slate of candidates, from the IRS’s perspective, Boston said. The most serious ramification to the ministry would be a loss of its tax exemption. Other possible sanctions may include a fine or a warning.
At press time, Hearst had not responded to an invitation from The Watch to comment on the matter, and the IRS had not yet responded to the complaint leveled against her. Boston does not anticipate that the agency will issue a public statement on the matter, unless it results in legal action.
That’s exactly what participants in Pulpit Freedom Sunday are hoping will happen.
“The whole point is to generate a test case,” said Stanley of Alliance Defending Freedom. “No court has ever had the opportunity to determine whether the IRS has the right to censor a pastor’s sermon. We think it’s unconstitutional.”
Pulpit Freedom Sunday started in 2008 with 33 churches participating. By last year, the event had grown to include 539 participants. “And this year it just exploded to 1,300,” Stanley said. “The movement is spreading by word of mouth as pastors are becoming more aware.”
And, he added, it doesn’t hurt that this is a presidential election year.
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