9/17/2008--According to the AP, there is currently a controversy in which the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal organization based in Arizona, is signing up churches to give expressly political sermons on September 28, dubbed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”, in order to challenge as unconstitutional the current ban on tax exempt organizations endorsing candidates for public office. In response, the Rev. Eric Williams, a minister with the liberal United Church of Christ is planning to file a complaint with the IRS against Alliance, claiming that endorsement of candidates would violate the separation of church and state.
Actually, the ban on expressly political tax exempt organizations is plainly constitutional, but this issue has nothing to do with the separation of church and state. Churches obviously have the same constitutional right to endorse political candidates as any other organization or citizen. On the other hand, churches do not enjoy tax exempt status because of the Constitution. It would be perfectly constitutional to tax churches and to deny charitable deduction status to contributions made to them. They get their tax exempt status only because they qualify under federal statutory law. In return for this benefit, they give up the same constitutional right to endorse political candidates that every non-religious tax exempt organization does. The challenge to the politics ban is the same whether brought by a church or by the Red Cross. Either way, the challenge loses.
Since this is purely a statutory matter and not a constitutional one, you and I are free to reconsider the policy at any time. Would it be a better world if tax exempt organizations could endorse political candidates? I doubt it. Would churches be more honest if they gave up their tax exempt status and engaged in politics expressly? Maybe. But I don’t see many religious organizations making that decision.