Two weeks ago, more than 100 pastors squeezed into a hotel meeting room in Washington, D.C., to learn about the Pulpit Initiative, a brain child of the conservative legal group, Alliance Defense Fund. Attorney Erik Stanley walked them through it.
"If the IRS chooses to come after these churches, we will sue the IRS in federal court," Stanley said.
Stanley says pastors are fed up. In the past four years, the IRS has stepped up its investigations of clergy. It sent letters to 47 churches, including some liberal ones — not just for explicit endorsements, but also for using code words like pro-choice or pro-life in relation to candidates.
"What's been happening is that the government has been able to go into the pulpits of America, look over the pastor's shoulder, and parse the content of their sermon. And that's unconstitutional," Stanley said. "No government official should entangle itself with religion in that way."
Celia Roady disagrees. Roady, a lawyer and expert on charities law, says there's nothing to stop pastors from talking about issues in light of scripture. But, she says, "You simply cannot say to your congregation, you should not vote for Candidate X because of Candidate X's position on this one issue. That's simply the line that has been drawn."
Roady says if a church can endorse a candidate, it is using tax-free dollars — taxpayer money — to subsidize a political campaign.
But it's not merely tax deductions that are at stake here, says Ohio Pastor Eric Williams. He says it's also the attempt of some churches to move aggressively into politics.
"I ask myself, 'Hmm. Why would a religious leader want to oppose a candidate? Why would a religious leader want to stand up and ask for my support for a candidate who's running for office?' They want to gain influence in the governmental process," Williams said.
No doubt, some church officials feel strongly about their political opinions, and feel that as they're opinions are based (so they believe) in their faith, they should be permitted to explicitly endorse or reject candidates from the pulpit or engage in naked campaigning. And I agree, so long as they are willing to forgo their tax-exempt status and my tax dollars are not required to subsidize their activities. But these pastors want to have their cake and eat it too; they want to continue to accrue their wealth in the form of tithes, fundraisers, etc., etc., untouched by the federal government, while they at the same time attempt to interfere with and meddle in government. Booth himself is awfully cavalier about the prospect of having his church's tax exempt status revoked:
"Big deal," he said. He added that he can get it back the next day because churches are automatically tax-exempt.
Besides, he said, electing "Godly people is more important than money."
Then the solution is simple...pay up.