Saturday, October 06, 2012


Preachers like Ron Johnson are going to endorse candidates from the pulpit tomorrow:
When Ron Johnson takes take his pulpit on Sunday, he will willfully break the law. After presenting his views on President Barack Obama's handling of religious issues –- like abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom - Johnson will ask his congregation a question.

"In light of what I have presented," Johnson says he will say, "How can you go into that election booth and vote for Barack Obama as president of the United States?"
What's the point of this?
What Johnson plans to do is in violation of the IRS' so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that has made it illegal for churches that receive tax exempt status from the federal government to intervene in "any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

... He will be joined by at least 1,400 others pastors across the United States.

... The goal: Force the IRS to come down on these churches so that the Alliance Defending Freedom, whose network includes 2,200 attorneys, can test the Johnson Amendment's constitutionality....
I absolutely support that 1954 law. It's in no way a freedom-of-speech issue: These preachers can retain their tax-exempt status while talking about issues (the way preachers did during the civil rights era) -- they just can't endorse candidates. And there's actually no law saying they can't endorse from the pulpit at all -- they just lose their tax-exempt status if they do. Freedom of speech is a right; tax-exempt status is a privilege.

Nevertheless, I recognize that this law might well be struck down soon (it almost certainly will be if President Romney gets to pick the next two or three Supreme Court justices). I won't be happy -- but I could imagine some good coming from it.

I say this because I was raised Catholic. My old church has veered sharply to the right on many issues -- and yet when people think about the Catholic Church, they still think Bing Crosby in Going My Way. They can't see what's obvious: The Catholic Church in America is now part of the religious right.

If it becomes legal to endorse from the pulpit, I hope a lot of Catholic priests start endorsing, because they're overwhelmingly going to endorse anti-abortion, anti-gay Republicans. Furthermore, the remaining few liberal priests who endorse pro-choice and pro-gay politicians will probably be chastised or disciplined.

I don't know what more the Catholic Church has to do to make the scales fall from liberal and moderate Catholics' eyes, but maybe if they hear their parish priests issuing political endorsements like this, it will finally get through to them that Rick Santorum is no outlier -- he articulates mainstream Catholic thinking on sexual issues.

And so maybe a few liberal and moderate Catholics will finally start to feel sufficiently unwelcome in the church. That should have happened a long time ago. The church doesn't deserve liberals' and moderates' membership or money. The church should shrink down to what it clearly wants to be: a small, angry, bitter right-wing sect that's obsessed with sexual policing.

Maybe legalized open endorsements will also hurt a few Protestant churches where moderates (and even some liberals) feel welcome. Maybe a huckster like Rick Warren will finally show his true wingnut colors, and lose some of his flock (and revenue).

So, yeah, if we lose that law, I'll be sorry, but maybe it won't be all bad.


Anonymous said...

I think it would be difficult for the courts to overturn that law. Since churches are not tax exempt under the same provision as 501(c)(3) organizations (who are also prohibited from engaging in lobbying, endorsements, campaigning, etc.) the law just made the churches subject to the same rules. If you overturn the law and say "OK, pastors should have unlimited freedom of speech without losing tax exempt status" then you open up a huge can of worms as to why all 501(c)(3) organizations shouldn't be let off the hook too.

So I think that, even if they do bait the IRS into taking them to tax court and, possibly, ultimately the Supreme Court, the law is going to stand.

BH said...

Marin, I see your point - but given the absurdly privileged position that religious entities/individuals (at least the Christian varieties) occupy in the American popular imagination & regard, I think a court could easily get away with formulating a bogus rationale as to why religious, but not secular, 501(c)(3)'s should have unlimited freedom of speech AND keep tax-exempt status. Easily, actually - merely an extension of the same rationale(s) propping up "In God We Trust", etc. And if 5 S. Ct. justices subscribed to such a bogus rationale, I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell of Congress acting to overturn it.

Steve, I don't blame you for trying to find a silver lining, but it seems to me it would be a damn slim lining compared to the damage done by a gutting of the Johnson Amendment. The consolation to me, meager though it is, is that most of the pulpit politicians get away with murder already - only the most blatant violations are punished, near as I can tell.

Philo Vaihinger said...

The tax breaks are also unconstitutional.

Let's scrap them and keep the muzzle.

Dark Avenger said...

They went after an Episcopalian priest a few years ago for talking politics from the pulpit:

PASADENA, Calif. — A liberal church no longer faces the imminent loss of its tax-exempt status because of an anti-war sermon delivered days before the 2004 presidential election, its minister said yesterday.

The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr. told the congregants at All Saints Episcopal Church that the Internal Revenue Service has closed a lengthy investigation into a speech by the church's former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas.

In the sermon, Regas did not urge parishioners to support President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., but was critical of the Iraq war and Bush's tax cuts.

Federal tax codes prohibit churches and other tax-exempt institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

In a letter dated Sept. 10, the IRS said the church continues to qualify for tax-exempt status but that Regas' sermon amounted to a one-time intervention in the presidential race. The letter offered no specifics or explanation for either conclusion, but noted that the church did have appropriate policies in place to ensure that it complied with prohibitions on political activity.

Bacon said the letter's unclear conclusion could mean future investigation of the church and leaves a ''chilling effect'' on the freedom of clerics from all faiths to preach about core moral values and such issues as war and poverty.

The church has ''no more guidance about the IRS rules now than when we started this process over two long years ago,'' Bacon said.

Victor said...

Feck the churches.
The synagogues.
The mosques.
The temples.
The covens.

Tax all of them.

Let them render unto Caesar, then their leaders can say whatever the feck they want to.

Until then, either pay and talk, or keep your tax break and eat of the body and drink of the blood of STFU.