IRS Warns Religious Institutions — Will They Back It Up?

Recently, an IRS official warned church pastors attending the Faith Leaders Summit meeting in Washington that endorsing candidates or contributing to campaigns could result in revocation of the church’s tax-exempt status.  Basically what this means is that a pastor can do whatever they want as a private citizen, but endorsing, speaking against, campaigning for, or giving money to a candidate as a representative of their religious organization is prohibited.  Many of us are aware that this sort of endorsement inside churches occurs constantly.  Clergy members often insert political rhetoric into sermons, advising their followers which candidate fits the church’s belief system.

The topic takes me back to a Catholic church I once attended a wedding in back in the 90s.  During a Catholic mass, there is normally a portion where short prayers are read with a response from the congregation like, “Lord, hear our prayer.”  Not only did the pastor go on and on during his sermon about how despicable Bill Clinton was because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, one of the short prayers offered during mass was something like this:  “For all of the men in power with poor moral judgement and all the interns…”

Ok, so it’s not a great example of a preacher endorsing or speaking against a candidate, but it sure made me chuckle.  That was, of course, followed by disapproving looks from my Italian-Catholic family.

But back to the topic at hand.  Pastors quite often endorse candidates or parties during mass and it goes unpunished.  In fact, during the 2008 presidential election season, pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church in Minnesota endorsed the Republican Party and told his congregation to vote Republican for president.  He even went so far as to write a letter to the IRS defending his right to do so and challenging them to do something about it.  In response, the IRS drummed up a case against the pastor, but later closed it, citing a “procedural move” as the reason for the closure, reserving the right to reopen the case in the future.

Four years later, in the thick of the next presidential campaign season, this topic is rising to the top once again.  Truth in Action Ministries, a Christian national media organization, is sponsoring a petition to repeal the restriction on church endorsements, arguing that this rule prohibits free speech.  Their argument is pretty weak.  If the IRS is telling a pastor that he can say and do whatever he wants as a private citizen, then free speech is there to be exercised.  What is prohibited here is the endorsement as a church employee representing that church.  The church can feel free to endorse whoever they want, but doing so would forfeit their tax-exempt status.  You see, it becomes a circular argument to some extent.  By giving the churches a tax break, the government is endorsing the church.  This is not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because the government is not endorsing one over another.  This benefit is offered to all religious organizations.  However, the organization cannot in turn endorse a candidate or party.  That would mean that by endorsing the church, the government endorses the candidate also, and that’s anti-democracy.

Personally, I don’t feel that any religious organization should be tax-exempt.  A church’s tax status should be based on profit/loss, just like other businesses and personal taxes.  A church should enjoy tax deductions for donations to charity and community organizations, and be taxed on everything that the rest of us are.  A church is a business just like any other and should be treated as such.  Then they can say whatever they want and endorse away, until their pastors are blue in the face.

Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis is the head writer and editor for SecularVoices, co-founder of Young Skeptics, and author of Understanding an Atheist. He is known for local and national secular activism and has spoken at conferences and events such as Reason Rally 2016 and the Ark Encounter Protest and Rally.

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