Pulpit Freedom Sunday Clarifies the Need for Clarity

Hundreds of pastors took to their pulpits on Sunday, Oct. 2, to engage in an annual civil disobedience ritual known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Initiated by the Alliance Defense Fund and supported by Glenn Beck, Pulpit Freedom Sunday aims to challenge the current prohibition on partisan electioneering by churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations.

Pastors involved with Pulpit Freedom Sunday argue that the current law threatens their First Amendment rights. "The freedom of speech and freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say," the Rev. James Garlow told The New York Times.

According to the Alliance Defense Fund, the more than 475 pastors who registered to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday "committed to preach sermons that present biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates." Garlow described his sermon in two parts: in one section, he would discuss issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and in another, he would discuss candidates.

Like leaders of all other 501(c)(3) organizations, pastors in their official capacity are prohibited only from intervening for or against particular candidates. As individuals speaking for themselves alone, they may endorse or denounce whichever candidate they choose. Both as individuals and as representatives of their organizations, they are free to take positions on public policy issues, including controversial ones, so long as they do not cross the line into favoring or opposing a particular candidate.

The American public, as well as most religious leaders, agree with these commonsense restrictions. Without them, candidates could, for example, donate funds to the church of an endorsing minister and then get a tax break for doing so.

While the Alliance Defense Fund claims that the project is not about endorsing or opposing candidates, the speech they are aiming to "protect" is already legal. The more vexing question, however, is how precisely to know when speech about a particular issue crosses the line and becomes an implicit statement about a candidate. While Revenue Ruling 2007-41 lists a series of factors that may play into that determination, there has never been a clear statement of precisely what qualifies as prohibited electioneering.

Both supporters and critics of the electioneering ban are frustrated by limited action from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Even though the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday was held in 2008, the IRS has yet to clarify the rules or take strong enforcement action in response. In fact, there are signs that the agency is becoming less interested in investigating political speech by churches: while it launched the Political Activities Compliance Initiative to investigate whether churches and other charities were engaged in illegal electioneering during the 2004 and 2006 elections, the IRS discontinued the program in 2010.

Religious leaders are, and should be, free to instruct their parishioners about the intersection of their faith with the issues of the day. However, it is a decided matter of public policy that they cannot enjoy the advantages of tax exemption while simultaneously using their pulpits to endorse candidates. Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an outlier example of activist preachers being spurred into action by a nonprofit organization with a particular agenda: such an action would never have occurred if the IRS had issued clear, comprehensible guidance about when commentary becomes an endorsement.

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