Far-right group executes ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’

FAR-RIGHT GROUP EXECUTES ‘PULPIT FREEDOM SUNDAY’…. Following up on an item from a few weeks ago, federal tax law, as it relates to tax-exempt religious ministries, is pretty clear — houses of worship may not legally intervene in political campaigns, either in support of or opposition to a candidate or a party. Those who violate the law run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a prominent far-right legal-advocacy group, came up with a plan — convince conservative Christian pastors to break the law, on purpose, invite IRS punishment, and then take the whole issue to court in order to challenge the law itself.

They called the plan “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” which was held yesterday in 33 churches across the country.

Defying a federal law that prohibits U.S. clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an evangelical Christian minister told his congregation Sunday that voting for Sen. Barack Obama would be evidence of “severe moral schizophrenia.”

The Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee’s positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist “in direct opposition to God’s truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures.” Johnson showed slides contrasting the candidates’ views but stopped short of endorsing Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.

Johnson and 32 other pastors across the country set out Sunday to break the rules, hoping to generate a legal battle that will prompt federal courts to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

The ministers contend they have a constitutional right to advise their worshipers how to vote. As Johnson put it during a break between sermons, “The point that the IRS says you can’t do it, I’m saying you’re wrong.”

At first blush, this may sound compelling. If a church wants to endorse a candidate, it’s the church’s business, right? If congregations don’t like it, they can go to another church. If a pastor passes the collection plate for John McCain during Sunday services, church members can contribute or not contribute. This isn’t, the argument goes, any of the government’s business.

But this falls apart pretty quickly. Tax law doesn’t stifle free speech; it applies conditions to tax exemptions.

Non-profit organizations receive a tax exemption because their work is charitable, educational or religious. But the benefit comes with conditions, most notably a requirement that tax-exempt organizations refrain from involvement in partisan politics. Since tax-exempt groups are supposed to work for the public good, not spend their time and money trying to elect or defeat candidates, it’s hardly unreasonable.

If the rule were eliminated, there’d be a new loophole in campaign finance law — people could donate to a church’s partisan political efforts and the contribution would be tax deductible.

But what if some ministries believe partisan political work is absolutely necessary? They’re in luck — they have every legal right to give up their tax exemption and create an explicitly partisan organization, such as a PAC. Current law simply limits groups from being both tax-exempt ministries and engaging in partisan politics.

ADF, meanwhile, not only wants to let ministries have it both ways, it also wants these ministries to take a huge risk with no reward — break the law, help partisan candidates, and risk IRS penalty. Why? Because the Alliance Defense Fund, a multimillion-dollar right-wing legal consortium, has a culture-war experiment it’s anxious to try out.

These 33 churches — chosen, the ADF said, in part for “strategic criteria related to litigation” — are religious right guinea pigs. The next step will be formal complaints filed against the ministries, which I suspect will happen sometime this morning, followed by IRS investigations.

Often, the IRS backs off if church leaders apologize and promise not to do it again. Given the goal of this project, that’s not going to happen. Stay tuned.