Pastors Get OK to Preach on Social Issues

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -  The Internal Revenue Service has ruled that church leaders can keep their tax-exempt status and speak out on social issues.

The decision comes in response to a complaint against a group of Texas pastors, but churches can still not endorse or oppose political candidates.

Social and Political Issues from the Pulpit

Pastor Wally Sherbon strolls the campus of Regent University each Wednesday, repairing and meditating on his Sunday sermon.

But lately, he's also been thinking about what it would mean if he couldn't talk about social and political issues from the pulpit.

"It's hard enough to come up with what God's thoughts are and what He is saying in the text, let alone having to put some external pressure and filter on what I am saying," Sherbon explained.  "I just couldn't do it."

IRS Ruling

What sparked the concern for him and others was a complaint that the Texas Freedom Network filed with the IRS against a group of pastors in the state for their work with a moral values group.

But the IRS has now ruled that the religious group can keep it's tax exempt status, despite the political and social activity.     

"Our position has always been that pastors are free to exercise their moral authority from the pulpit," said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice.

The group has argued that position in court for more than 20 years.

"If you look at what has triggered these audits in the past for churches, it's been the issue of abortion, marriage and sometimes gambling," Sekulow added.  "Those are three key issues that have triggered the audits, and now the IRS position says there is no violation of non-profit law when a pastor from the pulpit address the issue, even if its during an election.  That is a major victory."

"The implications of denial of tax exempt status  would be so significant, that it would chill First Amendment free speech," he continued.

Dragging Churches into Partisan Political Campaigns?

CBN News spoke with Dan Quinn of the group that filed the IRS complaint against the pastors.

"The unfortunate thing here is that it will now pretty much embolden wealthy special interests who see funneling money into non-profits like this as a back doorway to drag houses of worships into partisan political campaigns," he said.  "And we think it's sleazy to use faith as a political weapon."

Pastors across the country would call this latest IRS decision a victory.  But when it comes to maintaining the that tax exempt status and being politically active, there are still limits to what can be done inside the walls of a church.

"The individual pastor or church cannot endorse or oppose a political candidate, but that does not mean they can't address issues that those candidates address from a biblical perspective," Sekulow explained.

That makes preparing Sunday sermon a little easier for Pastor Sherbon.

"It's amazing how dark it is out there in terms of what is right, how do you raise children right, how you have a wonderful marriage and keep it like that," he said.  "You don't learn that anywhere, and when that goes there is no other place."

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.