This past weekend, 33 evangelical Protestant pastors in 22 states deliberately put their churches’ tax-exempt status at risk by preaching politics from their pulpits.
They were doing more than pushing their political agenda, an effort orchestrated by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund. They were hoping their defiance would lead to an Internal Revenue Service investigation. That in turn could lead to a legal challenge to the 54-year-old federal law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations – including churches – from campaigning for or against political candidates or seeking to influence legislation as a “substantial part” of their activities.
So what’s the problem with clergy having political views? Don’t they have the same First Amendment rights as other Americans?
Of course they do. Preachers can walk out their churches and endorse any candidate they want to. But they can’t politick from the pulpit in specific terms. They can preach about the importance of being “pro-life,” but they can’t say, “Vote for X because he’s against abortion.”
There’s a good reason for the ban. Churches are tax-exempt organizations, meaning they don’t pay property taxes, they don’t pay taxes on donations, and donors can write off their contributions as charitable deductions on their income taxes.
If a church essentially becomes an arm of a political party, why should it continue to get those kinds of benefits? Instead of donating to political parties and individual candidates – donations that are not tax deductible – people could just give to churches and get a write-off. Churches could serve as untaxed contribution collectors that funnel donations to the causes and candidates of their choice.
It’s a can of worms best left unopened. If we have a problem with campaign funds and political action committees now, just think what it would be like if churches were suddenly free to become tax-exempt PACs.
Not all clergy support breaching that wall. Roman Catholic Archbiship John Favalora of Miami wrote that “we can do a lot for our communities with the money we save by being tax-exempt.”
While the IRS has been more aggressive in recent years in looking into reports of churches overstepping the rules, it’s been 13 years since a church lost its tax-exempt status. That was an overt case of politicking (a church took out a full-page ad condemning President Bill Clinton). As it is, a lot of clergy blur the line, giving their congregations plenty of indication who they should vote for, even if it’s not explicitly spelled out.
Churches that want to be politically active are free to do so. All they have to do is renounce their tax-exempt status and start paying taxes like other advocacy organizations. But they can’t have it both ways without opening a dangerous fissure in the wall between church and state.