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1,500 Pastors Who Deliberately Broke Politics Law Gain Unexpected Ally

Expert panel argues ban on pastor political endorsements from pulpit should be dropped. (But most pastors disagree.)

The record-setting 1,500 pastors that deliberately broke the law last October by preaching politics from the pulpit may have failed to provoke the IRS, but they now have an unexpected ally.

The final report from a national commission of religious and nonprofit leaders argues that the IRS should drop its ban on churches' abilities to endorse political candidates. Labeling the current "government regulation of political speech" by religious organizations as "untenable," the 60-page document submitted to Sen. Charles Grassley—who has been investigating televangelists' finances since 2007—is the work of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations (CAPRO). (Baptist Press notes the many evangelical leaders on the commission.)

According to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), which oversees CAPRO, the report recommends that:

Members of the clergy should be able to say whatever they believe is appropriate in the context of their religious services or their other regular religious activities without fear of IRS reprisal—even when such communication includes content related to political candidates.

Such communications would be permissible provided that the organization does not expend incremental funds in making them. In other words, as long as the organization's costs would be the same with or without a political communication, the communication would be permissible.

And that means asking the IRS to do away with its current ban on pulpit politicking. According to the Washington Post, the report argues that the IRS ban "chills free speech and violates the culture of people who see the weaving of faith and political expression as essential to their religious practice."

In the report, CAPRO chairman Michael E. Batts writes:

It is both disturbing and chilling that the federal government regulates the speech of religious organizations…. The prohibition against participation or intervention in a political campaign included in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code … is the only law of its type on the books … the only law that allows the IRS to evaluate the content of a sermon delivered by a member of the clergy … the only law that could cause a church to lose its federal tax exemption based on the words spoken by its leaders in a worship service.

Among those who support ending the ban are participants in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual event since 2008 in which pastors deliberately violate the ban by endorsing political candidates in hopes of provoking a court fight with the IRS. CT reported in 2012 how evangelical leaders who've been coy in the past were now making their picks explicit with many endorsing Mitt Romney for president.

This contrasts with the view of most Protestant pastors. LifeWay Research found last October that only 10 percent believe pastors should endorse political candidates.

CT has previously reported on how pastors are double-daring the IRS yet punishment is unlikely, as well as the ironies of the ADF seeking punishment in order "to protect freedom".

CT also has reported on CAPRO's previous report, released in December 2012, which recommended no major legislative revisions but included 43 recommendations to increase "financial accountability by religious and nonprofit organizations."

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