This Week in God

First up from the God Machine this week is a closer look at federal tax law, as it relates to tax-exempt religious ministries. It’s 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, has been working for years on a plan to 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.

The stunt is called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” and it was last weekend.

The sermons, on what is called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, essentially represent a form of biblical bait, an effort by some churches to goad the Internal Revenue Service into court battles over the divide between religion and politics.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit legal defense group whose founders include James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, sponsors the annual event, which started with 33 pastors in 2008. This year, Glenn Beck has been promoting it, calling for 1,000 religious leaders to sign on and generating additional interest at the beginning of a presidential election cycle.

“There should be no government intrusion in the pulpit,” said the Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., who led preachers in the battle to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. “The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say.”

Mr. Garlow said he planned to inveigh against same-sex marriage, abortion and other touchstone issues that social conservatives oppose, and some ministers may be ready to encourage parishioners to vote only for those candidates who adhere to the same views or values.

It’s worth clarifying a few things. First, religious leaders who want to use their pulpits to preach for or against “same-sex marriage, abortion and other touchstone issues” are already free to do so. There are no legal limits, under tax law or anything else. Houses of worship aren’t defying a law when their actions are already legal.

Second, the trouble starts when pastors start telling parishioners who to vote for, based on candidates’ positions on those touchstone issues.

At first blush, the First Amendment defense 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 Rick Perry 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.

Churches that volunteer as religious right guinea pigs are making a mistake.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Dahlia Lithwick has a great piece on a fascinating Supreme Court case, trying to balance the need to prevent discrimination and protecting religious liberty.

* The Roman Catholic Church this week opened its first new seminary in Castro’s Cuba in a half-century. (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

* And Matthew Avery Sutton takes a look at followers of Christian apocalypticism, who keep wondering whether President Obama, like FDR, is the antichrist.