Can the Government Veto a Sermon?

Friends,

Lots happening this weekend… It’s Respect Life Sunday (and we have resources at ProLifePreaching.com), it’s Life Chain Sunday (and I’ll be participating in one in Detroit… I hope all the Life Chain organizers are ready to collect names, numbers, and emails of the participants to help engage them throughout the year!), it’s the opening of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization (Priests for Life was pleased to send input to the synod on the connections between new evangelization and the pro-life movement) – but what I want to focus on for a moment here is that it is also “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

Here’s the question: May the government filter, edit, or veto the contents of a sermon?  No court has ever heard a case regarding whether the Internal Revenue Service can do so. Yet every day – and especially in these weeks prior to an election – preachers act as if their sermons have to be vetted and approved by the IRS.

Indeed, the IRS issues guidelines saying that in order to retain its tax exemption, Churches and other organizations set up as “501 (c)(3)” entities must avoid any intervention in a political campaign.

But this restriction is not in the Constitution. In fact, it only goes back to 1954, to a provision that has no legislative history and has never been challenged in court.

And the result of the restriction, and the ambiguity often surrounding it (because the IRS says that all the “facts and circumstances” have to be taken into account to determine exactly when a preacher has “crossed the line,” therefore meaning in practice that you may not know that you’ve crossed the line until after the fact), what in fact happens is that speech is chilled and pastors do far less than they are able to do.

Since 2008, therefore, pastors across the nation have begun to rise up with a simple message: No government interference in the pulpit! They have decided, on a designated weekend, to preach sermons outside the usual restrictions of the IRS, and have sent those sermons to the IRS. The hope is that this will lead to a court case that can clarify whether the restrictions are in fact even constitutional.

In 2008, some 33 pastors did this. The IRS did not respond.

In 2009, some 84 pastors did this. Again, only silence from the IRS.

In 2010, a hundred pastors engaged in this project. The IRS raised no complaint.

Last year, 539 pastors sent in their sermons challenging the IRS restrictions. And nothing but silence came from the IRS.

This year’s numbers will surpass all the previous years.

It seems clear that the IRS does not want the 1954 restrictions subjected to court scrutiny. We will report more of what happens as a result of this Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Stay tuned!

Fr. Frank

 

 

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