Will Electioneering From the Pulpit Be the Next Big Battle Over ‘Religious Liberty’?


(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Participants pray at The Response, a prayer rally that took place on Saturday, August 6, 2011, in Houston. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then about to launch a presidential bid, addressed the daylong event despite criticism that the it inappropriately mixed religion and politics.

This article originally appeared on BillMoyers.com, the website of the Moyers & Company television program.

On July 17, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) settled a longstanding suit against the IRS for failing to enforce restrictions on political activities by tax-exempt churches and religious organizations.

Since 1954, tax-exempt religious organizations have been barred from endorsing parties or candidates. FFRF filed its 2012 complaint in response to conservative preachers openly defying those restrictions. Since 2008, a growing number of clerics have participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” offering partisan endorsements during services. As ABC News reported in 2010, “The growing trend is a challenge to the IRS from the churches, and may jeopardize their all-important tax-exempt status. But some pastors and church leaders said they are willing to defy the law to defend their right to freedom of speech.”

Most at stake isn’t the freedom to worship or speak out, but eligibility for tax subsidies that are estimated to cost the government over $80 billion in revenues every year. As Dylan Matthews explained in The Washington Post, “Churches don’t pay property taxes on their land or buildings. When they buy stuff, they don’t pay sales taxes. When they sell stuff at a profit, they don’t pay capital gains tax. If they spend less than they take in, they don’t pay corporate income taxes. Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get ‘parsonage exemptions’ that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they’re doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits).”

According to the FFRF, the IRS “admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches. A prior lawsuit in 2009 required the IRS to designate an appropriate high-ranking official to initiate church tax examinations, but it had apparently failed to do so.” The settlement reached earlier this month is, at least for now, only a symbolic victory for the organization. The IRS has enacted a moratorium on examining tax exempt organizations’ political activities in the wake of the controversy over the agency’s applying extra scrutiny to conservative and liberal “social welfare” organizations.

Nonetheless, as a result of the settlement, the IRS is instituting new protocols “for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations.”

Intervening in the case on behalf of Patrick Malone, a priest and vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Church in Wisconsin, was the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund has gained prominence for its work challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on behalf of Hobby Lobby, and its involvement pushing “religious liberty” exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.




Along with all the excellent points made in the article, I want to add one more perspective. I have been a clergy person for nearly 40 years. I have found that the prohibition against endorsing candidates is a very helpful tool for me to use to resist - from both sides of the aisle - those who would pressure me into endorsing one candidate or another. It also is a rock on which I can stand to demand that any candidate forum or election discussion has multi-partisan representation. I shudder to think what the result will be of dispensing with this important law.

if ever there might be a complicated issue more might take seriously, this is one among a few such. it would be dead wrong to dismiss the problems involved and many lessons of history. in the U.S., for example, without religious organizations during important struggles against slavery, and later, the civil rights movement (that continues in ways needing improvement as matters have evolved), much good might not have happened. moreover, some of the "religious" excesses evident against the civil rights movement a generation ago have been improved upon, as have been gratuitous "religious" efforts by various diverse factions. indeed, the situation for "religion" has improved in some areas of "social" issues. tax law has figured into some struggles much better than principally troublemakers might have preferred. certainly, things could be worse, but not in terms of tax law enforcement. indeed, "religious" activities are still problematic, even if not running afoul of tax codes. so are many "political" organizations. yet a study of tax code enforcement--or lack of it--would likely develop many insights that might be overlooked or spoiled if history isn't truly respected. the same is true about many lessons astute history teaches, but poor imitations of history's use seem to abound, while for a few, empowerment by the study of history is ever more useful--and then, "temptations" set in for some, but not most.

There really is no issue of Freedom of Speech here. Any religious organization is free to endorse whomever it chooses. At the same time, American taxpayers have the freedom not to subsidize these brand new political organizations. The religious organizations had better realize they can't be both partisan and non partisan at the same time. Pick your poison.

I find it a bit odd to suggest that not taxing religious institutions cost $80B. It is like saying that not taxing tea in the USA is costing Britain $2B. There is no cost, just no income. Choosing to tax is not a matter of costs, but rather a matter of where the country wishes to collect. Collecting taxes has an impact and can be an instrument of corruption or influence by how and what is taxed from religious institutions. It was considered by our forefathers inappropriate for the government to influence religious institutions. It had been a source of great trouble before and during the reformation and during the reign of King Henry VIII, as well as the rise to power of the Puritans in Oliver Cromwell. They had in mind for the USA to avoid that bloodshed and sanctimonious form of God oriented rule that corrupts both government and religion. Perhaps it is too late to avoid it, but let's really understand what we are talking about, remember our history and try to avoid repeating all of the mistakes of our forebears.

Let me get this straight. You are saying that since taxation can be used as an instrument of corruption, then there should be no taxation? That suggests that since politicians are sometimes corrupt, there should be no government, or because some police officers are corrupt, then law enforcement should cease and desist. You cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. Yes, corruption exists, largely due to citizen indifference. The solution is to root out corruption, not end end every program or system that is corrupt.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)