Ban on “Pulpit Politicking” Protects Taxpayers, Religious Believers

August 14, 2013

Religious leaders today released a report that calls for an end to the Internal Revenue Service policy that bans tax-exempt organizations, such as houses of worship and nonprofit groups, from engaging in partisan political activities (news coverage here and here).

The 94-page report argues that the ban, which was enacted in 1954, restricts the freedom of speech of religious leaders who consider religious and political expression inextricably tied, and that clergy should be able to say "whatever they believe is appropriate" without any fear of punishment.

The report was prepared by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability's (EFCA) Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, and represents the views held by the leaders of dozens of major religious denominations and nonprofit organizations. It was delivered to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has worked in concert with the ECFA on this issue for years. 

But, despite claims made by authors of the report, the ban on partisan political activities by tax-exempt organizations is based on sound reasoning. 

First, the ban protects taxpayers from essentially allowing partisan political advocacy on their dime. Opponents of the ban claim that it unfairly restricts houses of worship and nonprofits from addressing elections and political issues. It should be noted that the ban does not bar leaders of tax-exempt outfits from speaking about what their religion purports to be true, or how religious beliefs and values relate to hot-button political issues. It simply bars them from taking explicit stands on political parties and candidates.

But, more to the point: houses of worship and nonprofits are not forced to apply for, or receive, tax-exempt status. They choose to do so because of the benefits provided by such a classification. In return, the government requires these groups to not engage in partisan politcking. This prevents groups from receiving tax breaks, then turning around and using the money saved to influence political elections. 

Second, the ban protects religious believers from having their houses of religious worship turn into houses of political worship. Opponents of the ban claim that clergy should be able to endorse or oppose political parties and candidates. But houses of worship are centered on spiritual teaching, support, and guidance -- not outright partisan political promotion. The ban allows religious believers to choose between and belong to congregations without fearing that they will not fit in due to their political afiliation or support for political candidates. 

For instance, read what some religious leaders are saying: 

"My concern is what that kind of change would make to the integrity and the unity of the church itself," said Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of The Interfaith Alliance. "It's about the sanctity of the religious voice in the context of worship and to compromise that authority would be devastating to religion in America.”

Or, as expressed by Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State: "Americans ... attend houses of worship for spiritual solace, not partisan preaching."

As it turns out, most Americans agree: numerous surveys have found that roughly two-thirds of Americans believe houses of worship should not endorse political candidates or parties.

The real problem with the IRS ban is not the ban itself, which most Americans believe is a good policy, for good reasons.

The real problem is that the IRS does not enforce the ban. You might recall that in December 2012, the Center for Inquiry and American Humanist Association sent a letter to the IRS voicing shared concerns and disappointment regarding the agency's lack of action against churches which are blatantly violating laws that prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing political candidates and parties.

Incredibly, those who oppose the ban actually uses this as an argument against the ban. If the IRS cannot consistently and coherently enforce the ban, they ask, why have it?

Because the ban protects American taxpapers and religious believers. That's why.  

The IRS politicking ban doesn't need to go. The IRS politicking ban needs to be enforced.

Update: Over at The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta has linked to several commentaries on this policy, including both this one and a particularly good article by Yale Law professor Adam Cohen.
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