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Should clergy have the right to stand up in their tax-exempt pulpits and endorse political candidates?
For a half century, the answer has been no. But The Washington Post's Peter Slevin reported on Sept. 8 that a conservative group called the Alliance Defense Fund wants to change that.
The group, founded by well-known conservative activist James Dobson and others, comes from the same corner of the political universe that turned the estate tax into the death tax. And it has similarly found a clever way to frame this issue: It is, they say, about the “constitutional right to speak freely from the pulpit.”
It is, the ADF website says, all about defending religious freedom. And the group is asking ministers give sermons on Sept. 28 that explicitly endorse or oppose candidates (care to guess whom) in defiance of the law and the IRS regs. Their goal is to get the issue to the Supreme Court, where ADF expects a sympathetic hearing despite extensive case law upholding the prohibition against politicking from the pulpit.
The issue of faith and politics is already exceedingly muddy. Political candidates seek and receive the endorsement of clergy all the time. John McCain and Barack Obama have gotten more than a little heat for the views of some of their clerical supporters. In 2004, some Catholic bishops said they would refuse to give communion to John Kerry because they disagreed with his views on abortion. The Christian Right provided not only votes but a powerful get out the vote operation for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.
In addition, houses of worship have long been forums for political debate and activism. But the IRS has drawn the line at a clergyman standing in the pulpit and instructing congregants to vote for candidate X or against candidate Y.
Despite the claims of the Alliance Defense Fund, its initiative is not about free speech at all. Pastors can say what they want. The question is, should taxpayers be subsidizing their political views. Tax-exempt status is extremely valuable. It allows givers to deduct their contributions. It allows churches to avoid not only income taxes, but state and local property taxes. A preacher can say what he wants, but should taxpayers, who may find his views repugnant, in effect pay him to express them?
Finally, there is the can-of-worms problem. Imagine the possibilities if these restrictions against clergy endorsing candidates were lifted entirely. A tax-exempt church could operate as a nearly full-time, tax-exempt political phone bank. Howard Dean could get himself a mail-order divinity degree and proselytize from the Democratic National Committee pulpit as Rev. Dean. The DNC might even be able to call itself a church, get tax-exempt status, and solicit tax-deductible funds from holy bundlers. RNC Victory 08 chair Carly Fiorina, could do the same. Fat Cats would not only feel they were doing the Lord's work by giving to their favorite candidates, they could get another tax write-off for the honor.
Just what we need in these days of half-trillion dollar deficits.
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