Partisan Politics And Pulpit Ploys: Sermon Subterfuge May Invite IRS Scrutiny

It’s an election year, and some foolhardy pastors – prodded by reckless Religious Right groups – are determined to get into a scrape with the Internal Revenue Service.

Federal tax law is clear when it comes to politics: Tax-exempt houses of worship are free to address political and social issues, and pastors may encourage voting as good civic behavior – but they may not use their resources to promote or oppose candidates. It’s simply not the job of the pastor to tell congregants which candidates they should vote for or against.

Yet some religious leaders have even resorted to tricks to try to get around the IRS rules. In Madison, Tenn., Pastor Maury Davis of Cornerstone Church openly supported three candidates for school board from the pulpit.

Davis had earlier endorsed the candidates, one of whom is his own brother, on a local radio station. That’s not a problem. A pastor can endorse candidates as a private citizen. But that was not enough for Davis. He later stood in the pulpit and said, “I want to tell you that I am not allowed to promote a political candidate from the pulpit because of the IRS guidelines…. I’m allowed on a radio station to say I want you to vote for Tony Davis and Robby McGee and Charlie Taylor, but I’m not allowed to say that in our pulpit.”

Pastor Davis may think his flippant semantic games will protect him, but the IRS may have other ideas. In this case, it’s clear what the pastor’s intent was: to instruct his congregation on how to vote. Americans United has asked the IRS to look into this matter, and we hope the tax agency does so promptly.

Despite what Religious Right legal groups would have Americans believe, the IRS does take incidents like this seriously. Recently, the tax agency informed a Florida evangelist named Bill Keller that he is under investigation. Keller ran commentaries on his Web site attacking former Republican candidate Mitt Romney, advising people that voting for Romney is the same as voting for Satan. AU asked the IRS to look into this, and the agency is doing so.

Several times this year, the IRS has issued statements reminding religious leaders that the law does not allow them to use church resources to endorse or oppose candidates. Most recently, the IRS in July issued a two-page memorandum on the use of the World Wide Web by tax-exempt groups, outlining activities that may step over the line into partisan politicking.

None of this has stopped the Religious Right. The mega-bucks Alliance Defense Fund is urging pastors all over America to violate the law on Sept. 28. It has been reported that dozens of pastors have already signed up.

Americans United is aggressively responding to this reckless campaign. We’re sending letters to religious leaders nationwide, reminding them of what federal law really says and debunking Religious Right calumny.

AU is also reporting instances of flagrant violations of the law. We are buoyed by the knowledge that the American public rejects the Religious Right’s gambit and does not support pulpit politicking. One recent poll found only 28 percent of respondents backing partisan politicking in church. Nearly 60 percent said no to it. Other polls have shown even higher numbers opposing pulpit politicking.

We are also aware that the courts are on our side. A federal appeals court ruled in 2000 that the IRS acted within the law when it revoked the tax-exempt status of a New York church that in 1992 placed a full-page ad in USA Today advising people that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin. The church enlisted attorneys from TV preacher Pat Robertson’s legal group, who made a free-speech argument in court. It failed.

Tax exemption is a benefit, and a lucrative one at that. Not surprisingly, it comes with conditions. One of those conditions is the ban on partisan politicking. The leaders of the vast majority of religious and secular non-profit groups have no problem abiding by this regulation.

Those few religious leaders who chafe under it could give up tax exemption and be as partisan as they want. Instead, aided and abetted by irresponsible Religious Right groups, they plot open defiance of the law.

Their behavior is reckless and short-sighted, and they may very well come to regret it. The IRS, after all, is watching.