Preaching politics from the pulpit is becoming an important focus of religious right groups lately. Last month, Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund) complained that pastors were forced to live in a climate of "fear and intimidation" because of complaints of IRS tax code violations by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other organizations. Alliance Defending Freedom encourages pastors to preach politics on "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" each October.
Liberty Counsel, a religious right advocacy group, is urging more than just "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" — they're saying that "Silence Is Not An Option" and say that pastors have the right to "educate" their congregations about biblical values, legislation and candidates whenever they see fit. In an August 16 YouTube presentation, Liberty Counsel's Mat Staver and Matt Barber said that 100,000 "Silence Is Not An Option" packets are being sent out to pastors (see video and transcript below).
Staver pointed out that churches do not need to obtain a letter from the IRS confirming their tax exempt status — which is true according to an IRS publication on non-profits, which states:
Churches. Although a church, its integrated auxiliaries, or a convention or association of churches is not required to file Form 1023 to be exempt from federal income tax or to receive tax deductible contributions, the organization may find it advantageous to obtain recognition of exemption. In this event, you should submit information showing that your organization is a church, synagogue, association or convention of churches, religious order, or religious organization that is an integral part of a church, and that it is engaged in carrying out the function of a church.
In determining whether an admittedly religious organization is also a church, the IRS does not accept every assertion that the organization is a church. Because beliefs and practices vary so widely, there is no single definition of the word church for tax purposes. The IRS considers the facts and circumstances of each organization applying for church status.
Not having to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining a letter designating a church as a non-profit is just one of many privileges that churches enjoy under the tax code above and beyond all other organizations, as the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is documenting.
The 1954 Johnson Amendment prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity, but as Reuters pointed out last month, as churches are becoming more political, the IRS is not doing anything about it. Reuters reported:
"Unlike other types of charities, churches do not have to file financial statements with the government. There are only rough estimates of church endowment or investment income, which is also tax-free and believed to be larger than annual contributions.
"Using tax data from the U.S. Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation and data on giving to churches from the Indiana Center, a Reuters analysis found that tax breaks on church giving shaved $12 billion or so from total U.S. tax collections in 2011 and approximately $145 billion over the last decade.
"The property tax break is probably even bigger. In their 2011 book "Politics, Taxes, and the Pulpit," law professors Nina Crimm and Laurence Winer calculated that houses of worship received $12.7 billion in property tax exemptions on $685 billion of property in 2006, a figure large enough to have played a role in city and state budget deficits of recent years.
"In big cities the numbers can be dramatic. New York City's 9,500 churches, synagogues, and mosques, for example, will avoid $626.9 million in property taxes this year thanks to their tax-free status, according to the city's Independent Budget Office."
Liberty Counsel's Staver and Barber argue that because churches need not obtain a letter of tax exemption, they can cross the line about political campaigning as much as they want. "Churches, by virtue of the IRS code and by virtue of who they are, are exempt from this process and they don’t have to get a letter. So churches don’t need the letter, so there’s nothing for the IRS to take away. And that’s a significant difference," Staver explained. "So if a church were to mess up, make a mistake and cross the line, and if, unlike another organization that might lose its tax exempt status and you have to get the letter again, churches on the next day could just simply act in a way that’s not endorsing or opposing a candidate and their tax exemption comes back into effect without having to get the approval of the IRS."
Staver pointed to the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, New York, which had bought full-page newspaper ads opposing then-Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, as an example that the IRS can do nothing about churches engaging in political activity. The church lost its IRS tax-exempt status but continued operating, changing its name to Landmark Church. "And so this church that actually took out full page ads in the USA Today and Washington Times opposing Clinton for president still never lost its tax exempt status. So that’s like the – that definitely crossed the line but the church still never lost its tax exempt status," Staver remarked.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way, and other watchdog groups that fight for separation of church and state are nothing but "paper tigers," according to Barber, who says that their letters concerning tax code violations are "disinformation" used to "intimidate pastors into silence."
—– PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT —–
STAVER: Liberty Counsel has launched its “Silence Is Not An Option” program for pastors and churches. [… ]This “Silence Is Not An Option” program is going to be distributed — 100,000 copies of this — and we want even more to go out around the country. Information includes DVD and printed material setting forth what pastors and churches can do, what’s permissible with respect to political activity of pastors and churches, supporting or endorsing candidates, and also with regards to legislation or initiatives such as the personhood initiative or marriage initiatives or some local state or national legislation.
BARBER: Yeah, and I think that pastors will be surprised. You know, the ACLU and anti-theist groups like People For The American Way and Barry Lynn’s Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been so adept at spreading disinformation about what pastors can and cannot do that they’ve intimidated a lot of pastors into silence. You know, these groups accuse Liberty Counsel and other groups of trying to … encouraging pastors and Christians to vote for people with Christian principles and who are going to … who are Christians themselves, Christian leaders to take positions of office and the positions of authority throughout all levels of government, and so to them, I say “guilty as charged.” That’s exactly what we are doing and pastors have a responsibility to encourage people to vote biblical principles when they get in that ballot box.
STAVER: Well they do and in fact, you know, the pastors, the churches are different, let’s start off with the difference between churches and other non-profit organizations. Any other non-profit organization which is tax exempt and contributions are tax deductible, the IRS code says that you cannot endorse or oppose candidates for office. It is a complete prohibition. Non-profit organizations that are not a church are required to apply to the IRS and fill out a form at the very beginning of their tax exempt quest and it’s quite an extensive form. And it takes, you know, anywhere from 12 to 14 to 18 months or more before you get a response from the IRS that would say that you’re tax deductible and your contributions are tax exempt. That means, then, that you’ve got that benefit but you’re also under the IRS code. The code says that you can’t endorse or oppose a candidate. Now, if you were to lose that letter because you violated the tax law for some reason, including the political intervention provision, you’d have to go through the process again and reapply and take that lengthy time to get word from the IRS. Churches are completely different. Churches, by virtue of the IRS code and by virtue of who they are, are exempt from this process and they don’t have to get a letter. So churches don’t need the letter, so there’s nothing for the IRS to take away. And that’s a significant difference. So if a church were to mess up, make a mistake and cross the line, and if, unlike another organization that might lose its tax exempt status and you have to get the letter again, churches on the next day could just simply act in a way that’s not endorsing or opposing a candidate and their tax exemption comes back into effect without having to get the approval of the IRS.
BARBER: Yeah, Mat, how many churches have lost their tax exempt status for political activity or even for endorsing a candidate from the pulpit?
STAVER: None. Absolutely zero. The restriction on the political candidates came in 1954. Not one church has lost its tax exempt status. The one in regards to lobbying for or against legislation came in 1934. Not one church has lost its tax exempt status.
BARBER: This has got to be frustrating for groups like People For The American Way and Americans United and Barry Lynn. I know it is because their whole tactic is to bully and intimidate pastors into – warning them that they’re going to lose their tax exempt status. Well, they’re a bunch of paper tigers and they know it inherently, so that’s why they kick out all these letters and try to threaten pastors and so forth. But you know, Mat, this – We’re in similar times right now, this reminds me of the election back in, leading up to 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were instrumental in encouraging Christians to get involved, into voting. Jerry Falwell said something to pastors at that time. He said, “What is wrong in America today?” He asked, “We preachers, and there are 340,000 of us, and we pastor churches, we hold the nation in our hand. And I say this to every preacher, we are going to stand accountable before God if we do not stand up and be counted.” And so I encourage pastors around the country to get this information that we have, to get an idea of what their rights are, and to further biblical principles in our culture.
STAVER: Well, we have information both in a DVD format that explains all of this as well as in the “Patriot’s Handbook: Political Action and Pastors and Churches.” It’s called “The Silence Is Not An Option” packet. […] Make sure that your pastor gets it. We’re going to be sending out over 100,000 of these but we want to make sure that every pastor gets this, as well, that needs to get it. So contact us and get this to your pastor and get it to some other churches in your community. You know, the only church that has ever come close to crossing this line – actually, they did cross the line – was a church that opposed Bill Clinton for president in 1992. And they took out full page ads in the USA Today and Washington Times opposing him because of his position on abortion. He did win in November of 1992. The church was investigated by the IRS. The IRS took the church’s letter. This church had voluntarily obtained a letter and half the churches have letters in the country, half of them don’t, doesn’t really make any difference either way. The IRS took the letter because the church did not want to resolve the issue with them, but the Federal Court of Appeals ultimately said that the letter is a symbolic issue for churches, it doesn’t really mean anything, and that the church never lost its tax exempt status and was continually tax exempt even throughout all this process. Not one contribution to it was taxed. It still remained tax deductible. And so this church that actually took out full page ads in the USA Today and Washington Times opposing Clinton for president still never lost its tax exempt status. So that’s like the – that definitely crossed the line but the church still never lost its tax exempt status. So, you know, when you start from that premise, what can pastors and churches actually do? Well, pastors can educate on biblical issues, biblical moral issues on marriage, abortion, whatever it might be …
BARBER: They can educate on what candidates hold and believe.
STAVER: … candidates’ viewpoints are. And you can do that by distributing objective voting guides and Liberty Counsel is here to look at different voter guides that you might want to distribute and we actually review voter guides for other non-profit organizations that actually do distribute them to make sure they are in compliance with the IRS rules.
BARBER: Yeah, really the question isn’t what can pastors do, but the question is what can’t pastors do. There’s very, very little and even when they do when they can’t do or they’re not supposed to do, there really is little recourse for the IRS or for anybody else and that’s what we’re seeing play out over and over again.
STAVER: That’s right, so you know, the bottom line is pastors need not be intimidated. It is a paper tiger as you mentioned, and that’s why we want to exchange the muzzle for a megaphone because, you know, we had pastor John Hagee, after he watched the video, he called me up and he says, he feels like an inmate being let out of prison after watching this; that he had more freedom to speak on these issues than of course people have tried to impose. And you’ve got groups like American United for Separation of Church and State that will send out letters that will threaten pastors, don’t get anything political in your messages or statements. Certainly pastors can educate, you can encourage people to register to vote, you can actually have voter registration, you can educate them on the biblical issues, you can educate them on the candidates’ views, and you can, specifically regarding legislation, ask them to – and your church can specifically endorse or oppose specific legislation, like a marriage amendment, like a personhood amendment. There is no flat prohibition on the lobbying, so churches can certainly get involved in that as well. And all of our material covers all of this information.
BARBER: And quickly here, we’re not just talking to pastors right now. We’re talking to everyone listening. Take – get our materials, take them to your pastors, so your pastor can become educated in what he can actually say from the pulpit.
STAVER: That’s right, and make sure you know what they can do and make sure that you constantly get this information to them and encourage them to speak on these important issues. This is a very critical time in American history where we need to speak on these moral and biblical values.