WASHINGTON — If the Alliance Defense Fund gets its way, Catholic priests may soon be free to endorse political candidates in their Sunday homilies. And they would do so without fear of jeopardizing the tax-free status of their parish churches.
The Alliance Defense Fund — an Arizona-based Christian legal activist group co-founded in 1994 by Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson and four other prominent evangelical leaders — is sponsoring “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on Sept. 28.
On that Sunday, pastors will be encouraged to challenge the Internal Revenue Service prohibition on endorsements of candidates for public office by declaring their support from the pulpit for specific candidates.
One Catholic group, Priests for Life, says it is sympathetic to the effort, but won’t be participating.
The U.S. bishops say endorsing candidates from the pulpit is “pastorally inappropriate, theologically unsound and politically unwise,” even apart from tax status questions.
The rules regarding political activity for non-profit organizations that hold tax-exempt status are governed by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Under the IRS’ interpretation of 501(c)(3), religious leaders are not prohibited from endorsing candidates, but they must do so as individuals, rather than as official representatives of their church or religious organization.
Alliance Defense Fund senior legal defense counsel Erik Stanley insists the IRS position won’t stand up in court.
“Church exemption from income tax is a matter of constitutional right,” said Stanley. “The government has no business in censoring what a pastor can and can’t say from the pulpit.”
Until 1954, Stanley said, there were no restrictions on what churches could do politically without jeopardizing their tax-free status.
And when the rules governing churches were changed, Stanley said it was the result of a floor amendment to the tax code that was introduced in the U.S. Senate by then-Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who wanted to halt the political activities of some non-profit organizations in Texas that opposed his Senate re-election bid.
Stanley said the 1954 changes to the tax code became law without debate or consideration of whether they improperly interfered with churches’ constitutionally protected rights of free religious expression.
“Overnight, what historically churches had been able to do with great freedom, which is preach from the pulpit even for and against candidates from office, suddenly the churches were not allowed to do,” Stanley said. “That has been the situation for the last 54 years.”
Will the IRS React?
One objective of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to provoke the IRS into revoking the tax-free status of the churches of pastors who endorse candidates on Sept. 28. The Alliance Defense Fund could then launch a lawsuit on their behalf, challenging the constitutionality of the IRS prohibition against candidate endorsement.
Stanley said it’s possible that the IRS could decide to ignore the pastors’ endorsements, noting that the federal tax agency could be reluctant to go to court over its interpretation of the tax code regarding religious organizations.
If so, the Alliance Defense Fund plans to persuade even more pastors to make endorsements from the pulpit in subsequent years, “and then at some point, it’s going to be clear. If the IRS does nothing, then what’s really going on here is ‘the emperor has no clothes,’” Stanley said.
Stanley isn’t sure if any Catholic priests are planning to participate in the pulpit initiative, but “we’ve been very active in reaching out to the Catholic community and seeking out some Catholics who would be very interested in doing that,” he said.
Robert Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says his organization is opposing Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
Boston said Stanley is misrepresenting the legal history of the prohibition on endorsing candidates. Boston cited a May 2000 decision by the U.S. appellate court for the District of Columbia that he said unanimously rejected the claim that churches have a constitutional right to endorse or oppose candidates.
“The Alliance Defense Fund is urging churches to break the law,” Boston said. “And if the IRS cracks down, it will be the houses of worship that will bear the brunt of that, not the Alliance Defense Fund.”
Boston said his group will monitor what happens with respect to the pulpit initiative, as it does with other potential IRS violations by churches.
And if any pastors do endorse candidates Sept. 28, he said, “We will report that to the IRS, as well.”
But in the view of the U.S. bishops, it would be “pastorally inappropriate, theologically unsound and politically unwise” for priests to tell their parishioners which candidates to support, even if there are no tax consequences. The position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was made clear in a 1995 administrative board statement.
Consequently, the conference is aware of the pulpit drive but does not support it, according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops’ conference.
“The concern is that you don’t want the Church to be reduced to another ‘ranting voice’ in the landscape,” Sister Mary Ann explained. “The Church should be, and is, above these matters — it’s the organization you can go to regardless of political persuasion. You’re serving Republicans and Democrats and Independents and any political persuasion.”
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said his organization often works with the Alliance Defense Fund and was consulted regarding Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
Priests for Life is not participating in the project, although Father Pavone said his group supports the initiative’s overall goal of gaining more freedom for religious leaders to express their views without fear of IRS reprisals.
However, rather than focusing its efforts on the specific issue of Catholic pastors endorsing individual candidates, Priests for Life is highlighting the latitude that’s available under the existing IRS regulations to proclaim the Church’s teachings in the political process.
That includes things like organizing voter-registration drives to ensure the Catholic vote gets counted and distributing comprehensive voter guides that assess the positions of all candidates on fundamental issues like abortion.
“We have a whole lot of freedom under the law, as it stands right now, to do all kinds of things that we’re not doing,” Father Pavone said. “That’s my greatest concern.”
Tom McFeely writes from Victoria, British Columbia.
INFOrmation: Detailed guidance about what political activities are permissible is available at the bishops’ conference website: USCCB.org/ogc/guidelines.shtml.