Freedom of the Pulpit

Ever since I was a child, there has been a belief instilled in me about what is and what is not appropriate from the pulpit. Some it what I learned was cultural. My spiritual background is in a very scholarly and thoughtful church so we weren’t often told what to think as much as convinced or given the tools to discover on our own. Part of the belief was gastrointestinal. The sermon had to be over in time to beat the other churches to the buffet at Ryan’s. But under it all there was a deep and abiding respect for the separation of church and state and therefor what came from the pulpit was rarely political.

I grew up my entire life under the “Johnson Amendment.” That’s a small bit of the tax code that is in the language concerning 501(c)3 tax exempt organizations. It was passed in 1954 after being offered from the floor by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Yes, the same LBJ that later became Vice President under Kennedy and then President after the JFK’s assassination. In part it states that churches “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

On the face, that doesn’t seem that bad. Yes, I’m well aware that historically pulpits have been used to push congregations to vote for a candidate. I think, personally, that’s abusive and I wouldn’t want to be a part of a church that did so, but I’m not sure I think churches should be banned from doing it.

And if that bit of tax code meant the only thing a pastor couldn’t do from the pulpit was say “vote for X” or “don’t vote for Y” then I’d probably be okay with it. But that’s not what reality is.

I happen to think that the idea of marriage being between one man and one woman is a legitimate religious perspective. I think it’s not biblical or even christian, but a nevertheless a legit religious issue. Now if a candidate was pro gay marriage and a pastor preaches against it… Is that political or religious?

And frankly, who gets to decide? The IRS? Do we really want a bunch of bean counters telling pastors what is and is not appropriate?

It was decided long ago that churches were exempt from taxation.  It is part of the canon of seperation of church and state.  The government is not to interfere with religion.  We don’t pray before high school football games.  Yet this seems to smack entirely to much of censorship from the federal government.

The IRS now has an “education campaign” where they send letters to churches reminding them that they can not preach politics from the pulpit.  I find this amusing and tad bit frightening.  I don’t see how this can be viewed as anything but government censorship of the pulpit.

This Sunday is Pulpit Freedom day.  I’m trying to decide how I feel about it.  The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group, has set up Pulpit Freedom Day as a day for pastors to participate in a nationwide day of civil disobedience. The ADF asks that pastors who have signed up use this Sunday to preach a sermon in direct violation of the tax code’s Johnson Amendment while offering legal help to any pastor or church that gets in trouble with the IRS.

I have a problem with a group of lawyers attempting to get potential clients to break the law, and that’s exactly what is going on here.  However, there is a certain justice to it as well.  In most circumstances, if a law is passed or enforced in such a way that it interrupts the rights of an individual, that individual can seek injunctive relief from the law… basically asking the courts to not allow the law to be enforced.  That’s exactly what happened with Alabama’s new Immigration Law.  Before it even went into effect, lawyers were seeking an injunction to prevent it.  But when it comes to tax law and the IRS, you can’t do that.  Congress, wisely I might add, saw that the filing of pre-enforcement injunctions against the IRS would result in chaos has made it illegal to as for such injunctions.  So in order to challenge the Johnson Amendment, the IRS has to actually take a church to court.

Surprisingly, that hasn’t happened yet.  To date, when the IRS makes a ruling that a church has violated the Johnson Amendment, either the church involved or the IRS blinks and backs down prior to going to court.  So the Johnson Amendment is completely untested when it comes to churches.  (It has been tested, successfully, when it comes to non-religious 501(c)3 organizations) No court has yet had a chance to weigh the first amendment right to free exercise of religion against the right of the IRS to tell churches they can’t preach “political” sermons.

I don’t want to live in a world where mega-churches swing elections.  I also don’t want to live in a world where it’s okay for a government to tell churches what they can preach.  It seems those are the alleged choices.  And honestly, I don’t know which choice I prefer.