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Reformers Want Congress
to End Ban on Pulpit Politicking
BY SARAH PULLIAM BAILEY ©2013 Religion News Service
commission of religious leaders has called for clarity in churches’ ability to endorse candidates and issues from the pulpit without fear of losing their tax-exempt status.
In a report sent on August 14 to Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has spent years investigating the finances of high-profile televangelists, the commission called the regulation of speech of religious organizations “disturbing and chilling.”
“The IRS guidelines are very vague, so ministers and nonprofit leaders are afraid of the (appropriate) line,” said Michael Batts, the independent commission’s chairman. “We think it can be fixed without creating a monster of unintended consequences.”
The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations grew out of Grassley’s probe of ministry finances and makes recommendations for greater transparency and reform. It is overseen by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which was founded in 1979 as a watchdog on ethical and financial wrongdoing.
In Wednesday’s report, the commission recommended that members of the clergy should be able to say “whatever they believe is appropriate” from the pulpit without fear of IRS reprisal. Since 1954, IRS regulations allow clergy to speak out on issues but they must refrain from endorsing specific candidates.
Additionally, however, the report suggests that churches should not be able to spend additional funds for political communication. Although some have advocated that churches’ tax-deductible funds should be able to be disbursed for political purposes, the commission says that the policy should remain.
IRS enforcement has been inconsistent, the report suggests. A 2012 Pew Research Center study suggests that black Protestant churchgoers are eight times as likely to hear about political candidates at church as white mainline churchgoers.
The Pew study suggests about two-thirds of Americans oppose churches endorsing candidates. And some clergy prefer maintaining the status quo.