It seems to happen in nearly every church right around election time: pastors and churches tip-toe around talking about politics and social issues that concern Christians, but then retreat in fear of the IRS.
"We don't want to have our tax-exempt status revoked," they say, invoking tax laws as reason for not participating in the national political discussion.
Wall of Separation -- Twisted
In fear of the Jeffersonian "wall of separation," pastors are intimidated into silence, not only in the public square, but also in their own churches.
That silence is often accompanied by rumors and misinformation spread by groups threatening to expose the church to the IRS for its "unlawful" participation in the political discussion.
But in reality, the Alliance Defense Fund says, pastors have the right to speak out on candidates and issues during the 2008 elections -- and they can do so without jeopardizing their churches' tax-exempt status.
ADF is a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation. According to its Web site, ADF was founded "to aggressively defend religious liberty by empowering our allies, recognizing that together, we can accomplish far more than we can alone."
On Friday, the ADF sent a letter to Iowa pastors, equipping them with the legal information they needed to participate without fear. It was the same letter ADF sent nationwide in October last year.
"Churches and pastors have First Amendment rights just like everybody else," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Doug Napier. "The groups trying to intimidate churches and pastors into silence are practicing true intolerance. Our hope is that this letter will help to ensure that these illegitimate tactics of fear, intimidation, and disinformation will not succeed."
The letter, titled "Politics in the Pulpit: Guidelines for Political Activities of Pastors and Churches," is a response to anonymous letters sent to pastors warning them that their churches' tax-exempt status will be in danger if they speak on certain social issues or endorse a political candidate as a private citizen.
Pastors Can Endorse Candidates -- As Individuals
But under IRS regulations, pastors are legally allowed to endorse a political candidate as a private citizen.
"Most pastors have been hoodwinked into thinking that they can't speak out in favor of candidates or actively campaign," Napier told CBNNews.com. "They can, they just can't do it from the pulpit.. They can even identify themselves as the pastor of their church, but they must indicate they are campaigning as a private citizen," he said.
Napier adds that a pastor must not use any of the church's resources while campaigning.
Issue Advocacy Freedoms
But a pastor can speak out from the pulpit on issues that are important to Christians, such as matters pertaining to life and marriage. In fact, a pastor could prepare a series of sermons on on practical issues the church faces, and then later distribute a voter-guide, detailing where certain candidates stand on issues that are important to Christians. A voter-guide is considered educational material.
The letter to the pastors and churches of America states that issue advocacy "may not be limited by government and can be freely engaged in by churches. Issue advocacy includes the discussion of issues of public concern, the actions of government officials in office, and even the positions of candidates on issues.
"As long as one does not use explicit words expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, one is free to praise or criticize officials and candidates with regard to their positions on certain topics - this is called 'issue advocacy.'"
Hostility Toward People of Faith
Although the letters Iowan pastors recently received were anonymous, during the past few years, more sophisticated letters from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State were sent to churches nationwide. While the warnings were technically accurate, Napier said, the letters were laced with threatening phrases.
"Individuals hostile to people of faith sometimes seek to chill pastors' right to free speech and silence them in their own churches," said Napier.
"This letter is meant to encourage pastors and churches by providing them with the facts concerning their freedom to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech on important issues facing our nation," he added.
Even if pastors and churches are in the grey area, Napier adds, a church has to be so blatantly in violation to even lose their tax-exempt status.
A Blatant Violation
Of all the cases filed with the IRS, he could only recall one church, Branch Ministries, that lost its tax-exempt status. And it was evident they were in violation: they took out a full-page ad in two newspapers during the 1992 presidential campaign, condemning Bill Clinton's positions on moral issues. As a result, they lost their tax-exempt status only for the tax year they were in violation.
After the penalty, Branch Ministries regained their tax-exempt status with the IRS.
Napier says every one of the complaints filed with the IRS that ADF has handled has been resolved in favor of the church.
Tax Exemption a Constitutional Right
Furthermore, "churches are presumed to have tax-exempt status, constitutionally," Napier said. "Churches don't apply for their tax exemption; they have it."
This raises an interesting question.
"How can you take away something that is presumed?" Napier said.
The IRS would have to find a serious violation in order for that to happen, and even so, the penalty is short-lived: they penalize the church during the year of its violation. After that year, the tax-exempt status is reinstated.
"So it's not as 'gloom-and-doom, the sky-is-falling' as the left would like it to be," Napier said.