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Pastors Challenge IRS
Over Political Endorsements

BY LILLY FOWLER                                                                                                     ©2012 Religion News Service

On October 7, nearly 1,600 American pastors ignored the Internal Revenue Service and apparently got away with it

As part of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," religious leaders across the country engaged in the endorsement of political candidates--an act that flies in the face of IRS rules about what tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, can and cannot do.

The IRS says tax-exempt organizations, or what they refer to as a 501(c)(3), are prohibited from participating in partisan campaigning for or against political candidates. Yet, despite what's in the rules, the agency continues to struggle to do anything about those who defy the law.

Though the regulation has been in place since 1954, in 2009, the U.S. District Court of Minnesota ruled the IRS no longer had the appropriate staff to investigate places of worship after a reorganization changed who in the agency had the authority to launch investigations.

New procedures for conducting church audits have been pending since 2009, which has left the IRS virtually impotent in conducting any kind of new investigations. The IRS did not respond to questions seeking comment.

Despite the lack of manpower, organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal ministry that first launched "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" in 2008, say they take the IRS restriction seriously--even as they disagree with it.  "Every pastor and every church has the right to decide what their pastor preaches from the pulpit and to not have that dictated to them by the IRS," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly the Alliance Defense Fund.

Jim Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif., says the prohibition has caused religious leaders to shy away from speaking about what they see as theological truth, such as the belief that homosexuality is biblically unacceptable.  "The line is being slid so fast, so far, that people no longer recognize authentic biblical preaching and they're calling it political," he said.

Today's parishioners, he said, are starving for religious leaders to act as "the moral compass of society." Garlow said he's witnessed pastors who boldly speak on political issues receive standing ovations.

But the Rev. Susan Russell, an associate pastor at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which the IRS investigated several years ago over a 2004 antiwar sermon it claimed was illegal, said churches should dedicate themselves to being robustly political without being partisan.

All Saints, for example, has always taken a stance on social justice issues such as war or the death penalty, but they do so, Russell said, without endorsing specific candidates.

Russell, a gay rights activist, said pastors who participate in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" may claim the movement is about freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but it's really an excuse to "jam theocracy down throats."

In response, the IRS has taken action in recent years, albeit sporadically. In 1995, it revoked the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which had bought full-page newspaper ads opposing then-Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton.

In 2004, the IRS created the Political Activities Compliance Initiative, which investigated dozens of churches during the 2004, 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

According to recent surveys, most of the public--and even most clergy-- agrees that churches are not the place for politics.

A survey conducted last summer by the Pew Research Center found that two in three Americans said churches and other houses of worship should not endorse one candidate over another; 27 percent said they should. And nearly 90 percent of Protestant pastors believe they should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit, according to a recent survey conducted by Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research.
      SPECIAL NOTE: The Seventh-day Adventist Church has consistently taken the position that endorsing or opposing candidates for any federal, state or local office does not belong in the pulpits of the Adventist Church. The Adventist Church welcomes people of all political beliefs. While church members should vote their conscience, for the church to take a position on any particular candidate or political party would inject the church into a debate that would interfere with its spiritual mission.
       The Office of General Counsel (OGC) for the Adventist Church is charged with protecting the Church’s tax-exempt status in the United States.  OGC strongly counsels the church at all levels to abide by the Internal Revenue Code and IRS regulations with regard to political activities.
       Initiatives such as the ADF “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” are in the view of OGC misguided, unwise and counterproductive. Adventist pastors and laypersons are strongly advised to not participate in this or any similar program.  Questions regarding this issue should be directed to the Office of General Counsel at the General Conference.  


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