Pastors increasingly pushing politics, despite IRS regulations
When the Catholic bishop of Peoria, Ill., compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin during a homily last April, the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter to the Internal Revenue Service.
And when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — just after Graham met with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — ran newspaper ads urging voters to support pro-life candidates who believe in the biblical definition of marriage, the foundation wrote another letter.
In all, the Wisconsin-based foundation sent 28 letters to the IRS last year, claiming that religious entities with nonprofit status violated the tax code by intervening in political campaigns.
IRS regulations clearly forbid tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates, according to experts.
Yet only one church was stripped of nonprofit status because of political speech, according to Nicholas P. Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University and an expert on IRS regulations and nonprofits. That was in 1992, when a Binghamton, N.Y., church placed ads in two newspapers days before the presidential election that said no Christian could vote for Bill Clinton.
In the past three years, pastors have become increasingly vocal about the intersection of morality and politics, yet the IRS has remained silent on enforcement, experts on nonprofit tax law say. The IRS did not respond to numerous calls for comment.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation filed suit in November, alleging the IRS failed to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations, and urging an investigation. Church leaders argue that the rules violate their freedom of speech.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, said churches should not be allowed to endorse candidates when other tax-exempt organizations can't.
“This is a chance to sort of light a fire under the IRS,” Gaylor said. “We hope our lawsuit will give them a little incentive.”
Dr. Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion and a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, said the IRS likely does not want to call attention to the issue.
“If they say, ‘We're pursuing this aggressively,' they might look heavy-handed,” Borick said. “If they say, ‘We're not doing much on this,' they open themselves to accusations that they are letting someone skirt the law.”
Gaylor said it is unfair if churches are allowed to violate the tax code.
“They can't be beseeching their congregation to follow their lead or tell them, ‘This is who I'm voting for' from the pulpit,” Gaylor said. “All the other tax-exempt groups labor under this same regulation, and I don't see any of them crying. They want special perks above and beyond the law that would be very dangerous to our republic.”
Cafardi said the IRS has been unable to enforce regulations regarding churches since 2009. A federal judge ruled that when the IRS reorganized, it did not install an official with authority to approve church audits, typically conducted when the IRS investigates whether a church qualifies for tax-exempt status.
“IRS really needs to get its act together and get regulations in place as to who authorizes a church audit,” Cafardi said. “Those rules are pretty clear, but they're not being enforced, because the IRS is not able to use the church audit procedures.
“It's a fine line with churches,” he said. “Obviously, churches have the right to preach on moral issues, and well they should. But the issue is, when do you cross the line? I personally think once you start naming candidates, you've probably crossed the line.”
Borick said trying to remain apolitical puts the IRS in a difficult position.
“It's a really messy area that often can evolve into a lot of rancor that most administrations and IRS leaders probably would be happy to avoid, simply because you're stepping into questions of are you in some sort of vendetta against the church if you're challenging them on their teachings, even if in some cases they are blatantly political,” he said.
Some church leaders flaunted their IRS violations through Pulpit Freedom Sunday on Oct. 7. Some sent videos of sermons to the IRS.
“Right now, it's like teasing a dog on a chain,” Cafardi said.
Nearly 1,600 pastors nationwide — including 45 in Pennsylvania — participated, protesting what they consider overreaching IRS regulations.
Grant Abe, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Monroeville, said he delivered six weeks of sermons addressing the “culture crisis.”
“My reason for participating was to make sure our congregation understands what our Founding Fathers had in mind — that our country was to have religious freedom,” Abe said. “The whole idea of the First Amendment is that we have freedom of speech, No. 1, but, No. 2, we are free from anyone in the government telling us what our religion should be.”
Abe said he believes the IRS regulations violate pastors' freedom of speech.
“It's not the place of the government to legislate what the people can hear from the pulpit — period,” Abe said. “There should be no government infringing on what is said from the pulpit.”
Keith Tucci, pastor of Living Hope Church in Unity, believes the notion that pastors cannot endorse candidates from the pulpit is a “myth,” because the tax code applies only to the church itself.
“For 30 years, I've done it. At every election I tell people how I'm voting and why I'm doing it,” Tucci said. “I never talk about politics. I talk about God's law and God's morals, and that they transcend everything. Now, if that happens to fall in the political basket, so be it.”
Tucci said the church's nonprofit status shouldn't silence him.
“I'm going to stand before God someday,” he said. “I'm not going to stand before a bureaucrat somewhere.”
Abe said he believes the IRS isn't acting because the number of pastors defying the ban is growing.
“I think they know they don't have a case or they know it's a waste of their time,” he said.
Donald Tobin, associate dean of faculty and professor of law at Ohio State University, said that although he believes political endorsements violate the tax code, it's the point where pastors have the strongest First Amendment argument.
“(But) there's nothing about the First Amendment that says you have to get this huge subsidy from the government,” Tobin said. Lack of enforcement, he said, led pastors to “push the envelope.”
Spokesman Jerry Zufelt said the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg is careful about advising priests what they can and cannot say. Voter guides they distribute are vetted by legal counsel.
“Clearly they are supposed to talk about moral issues and the Catholic Church's position on those issues,” Zufelt said. “They cannot from the pulpit ... say, ‘Vote for this person,' or ‘Vote against that person.' ”
Jennifer Reeger is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.