As the presidential primary season heats up a growing number of conservative pastors are entering the political fray. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times highlighted the movement, saying that pastors at small, independent churches – mostly evangelical - are advocating for political change from the pulpit.
The problem is current tax law prohibits non-profit groups like charities and churches from campaigning for or against candidates. By doing so they could be putting their tax exempt status at risk…and that’s exactly what they’re hoping for. A well funded Christian legal defense organization called the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is leading the charge to overturn the amendment that bans political speech in churches.
For the last 3 years the organization has sponsored an event in which pastors give a political sermon and send the text of their speech to the IRS, hoping to trigger an audit. The ADF then offers free legal services to any pastor that gets audited. So far, the IRS hasn’t taken the bait. According to the ADF, the first amendment trumps tax law and pastors should be able to advocate for whatever they want.
On the other side groups in favor of a strong church and state division insist that tax exempt status is a huge benefit and the government has the right to put restrictions on that benefit…in other words churches can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Then Senator Lyndon Johnson added the political speech ban to the tax code in 1954, so is it time to take another look? Does the tax code infringe on the first amendment rights of pastors? Or is church no place for politics?
Erik W. Stanley, Senior legal counsel, Alliance Defense Fund
Rob Boston, Senior policy analyst, Americans United for Separation of Church and State