Pulpit Sunday

It seems Pulpit Sunday came again:

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 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.”

Why is Johnson so brazenly violating that law this Sunday? Strength in numbers: He will be joined by at least 1,400 others pastors across the United States.

It is, of course, conservatives:

Critics charge that the movement is a Republican front dressed up as an exercise in religious freedom. When CNN asked to be put in touch with a church that plans to endorse the president, representatives from the organization said they don’t screen who the churches plan to endorse.

The two pastors that the Alliance Defending Freedom put CNN in touch with plan to either criticize the president or endorse Romney.

The Pew forum has a nice roundup of pertinent questions, such as:

31. Does the IRS target churches for enforcement of the political campaign intervention prohibition?

No. There are special audit procedures that the IRS must follow before commencing any inquiry about potential violation by a church of the political campaign intervention prohibition.67The IRS may begin a tax inquiry only after a high-ranking Treasury official documents in writing the acts and circumstances, including potential violations of the political campaign intervention prohibition, that lead the official to reasonably believe that the church may not be qualified for section 501(c)(3) tax exemption.68Once an inquiry is begun, the IRS must follow special procedures set forth in the Internal Revenue Code in its further dealings with the church.69Thus, the IRS does not have unfettered discretion to investigate activities by churches, including violations of the political campaign intervention prohibition, and must obtain high-level authorization before doing so. Generally, IRS inquiries about potential violations by churches of the political campaign intervention prohibition are initiated based upon facts reported by the media or complaints submitted by third parties.

and also has a poll showing most people don’t want churches to get involved in politics (66% say they should not endorse one candidate over another).

A reorganization of the IRS also seems to have made an investigation more difficult:

Thirty years later, a group of senators led by Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, passed legislation to try to rein in the agency a bit in doing some audits. While audits of churches continued over the years, they appeared to have slowed down considerably after a judge rebuffed the agency’s actions in a case involving the Living Word Christian Center and a supposed endorsement of Ms. Bachmann in 2007. The I.R.S. had eliminated positions through a reorganization, and therefore, according to the judge, had not followed the law when determining who could authorize such audits.

Still, it seems that the IRS does have a constitutional right to do this (the ruling is here):

The controversy started late in October of 1992  when Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a  complaint with the Internal Revenue Service over a small church outside  of Binghamton, N.Y. AU asserted that the Church at Pierce Creek (also  known as Branch Ministries) had violated its tax exempt status by  encouraging Christians to vote against presidential candidate Bill  Clinton.

In March 1999, a federal district court ruled in favor of the IRS, rejecting the church’s claims. The Robertson legal  group appealed on behalf of the church. That case was heard by the D.C.  Circuit Court of Appeals, and again the church lost. The appeals court  ruled unanimously in May of 2000 that the IRS had acted within the scope  of its authority. (AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case,  supporting the IRS’s revocation of church’s tax exempt status.)

Writing for the  unanimous court, Senior Circuit Judge James Buckley found that “the  revocation of the Church’s tax-exempt status neither violated the  Constitution nor exceeded the IRS’s statutory authority.”

It seems that right now there is a good balance between the two views–a church can not be tax exempt if it engages in a political campaign, but the IRS only does something if the church is blatant (in the case above, the church paid for an ad in a newspaper). Of course that means that conservatives will try to push things. I hope they do and lose their tax exemption.

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