UPDATE: On September 28, 2008, 33 pastors from across the country endorsed candidates for political office, an activity which violates Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and jeopardizes the tax-exempt status of their respective churches. This concerted effort was organized by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a 501(c)(3) public charity. The Internal Revenue Service has pledged to monitor the situation and take appropriate action. You can read more about this event in the Washington Post article "33 Pastors Flout Tax Law With Political Sermons (Sept. 28, 2008)."
The Washington Post article "Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted (Sept. 8, 2008)," reported that the Alliance Defense Fund is preparing a direct attack on the IRS’ 54-year-old rule that states "nonprofit, tax-exempt entities may not ‘participate in, or intervene in . . . any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.’" Rather than waiting for the IRS to investigate an alleged violation, the ADF is organizing several pastors to defy this rule on September 28 to prompt an investigation that the ADF will challenge in federal court on First Amendment grounds, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a Supreme Court decision that throws out the rule.
As of September 8, the ADF reported it has successfully recruited three dozen pastors representing 20 different states who will use their pulpit as a platform to endorse or reject any political candidate engaged in a local, state, or federal election. Thus, the content of the speeches will vary but all sermons "will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine." As explained by the ADF’s attorney, Erik Stanley, the ADF believes they are promoting a constitutional right, and not a violation of federal tax law, because "[i]t is the job of the pastors of America to debate the proper role of church in society. It’s not for the government to mandate the role of church in society."
However, not all religious leaders agree with the ADF and an opposing collection of Christian and Jewish clergy have petitioned to stop the "Pulpit Initiative" before it occurs and asked the IRS to determine whether ADF’s nonprofit status is at risk given its "attempt to organize an ‘inappropriate, unethical and illegal’ series of political endorsements." In another example, two Ohio pastors are encouraging pastors to deliver a sermon on the importance of the separation of church and state on September 21.
This is not the first time the ADF has participated in a controversial issue. It also "challenged same-sex marriage initiatives, stem cell research and rules that limit the distance protesters must keep from abortion patients… [and] helped the Boy Scouts ban gay Scout leaders." This issue in particular puts both the ADF and its lawyers in the limelight. Former IRS lawyer, Marcus S. Owens, criticizes the ADF and its lawyers for encouraging and "offering to explain" how to violate federal tax law. Owens, joined by former IRS commissioner Mortimer M. Caplin and former head of the IRS office of professional responsibility Cono R. Namorato, will ask for an IRS investigation regarding the ADF lawyers’ "flagrant disregard of the ethical rules."
IRS regulation information can be found on their "Charities, Churches, and Politics" web page.
A definitive court case on the issue of free speech and political expression, Branch Ministries Inc. v. Rossotti, is available here.
More information is available at OMB Watch’s "Background on IRS Political Activities Compliance Program" web page.
The Pew Forum provides a Q & A guide, "Politics and the Pulpit 2008," to explain in ‘plain English’ the rules governing political activity that apply to nonprofit organizations.
– Emily Chan