When do ministers cross the line?

Today’s question: At what point does a minister cross a line between merely sharing private views and involving a church in a political campaign, thereby inviting IRS scrutiny? Previously, Lynn and Stanley debated whether churches should receive tax exemptions at all and if federal tax law muzzles free speech from the pulpit.

Ministers are already free to speak for themselves
Point: Barry W. Lynn

There is no question, Erik, that when a person becomes a minister, rabbi, priest or other religious leader, he or she does not lose the capacity to participate in partisan political activities. However, any activity in support of or in opposition to candidates for public office must be done in a manner that doesn’t indicate or imply that the religious figure is bringing the weight of a religious institution behind him. It also means that that church leader cannot utilize the resources of the church to promote his personal partisan views.


Over the years, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has reported to the Internal Revenue Service instances in which we felt that pastors had gone way over the line in using the “assets” of their tax-exempt organizations to promote specific candidates. For example, we thought it was wrong when a Nevada pastor invited Democratic candidate Barack Obama to speak at a service days before the Nevada caucuses. In introducing Obama, the pastor said he wished the caucuses were that very afternoon so he could vote for the senator. We reported a Florida minister who posted a “warning” on his ministry website during the Republican primary saying that a vote for Mitt Romney was a “vote for Satan” -- this high-tech hate thereby funded by the pastor’s tax-exempt ministry.

If the Nevada pastor had announced his support for Obama at a news conference at city hall and made it clear that he was speaking for himself, he would be within his rights. If the Florida pastor had posted his anti-Mormon screed on his personal Facebook page, there would be no legal problem. Clearly, though, when a minister uses the pulpit, a church newsletter or an editorial in an archdiocesan newspaper to make a promotional statement, the IRS can and should attribute that to his organization. Similarly, if a pastor allows a favored candidate to distribute campaign material with the church bulletin or place pamphlets on car windshields in the church parking lot, he violates federal tax law.

Those few pastors who agree with your position, Erik, try all kinds of “clever” techniques to circumvent the law. Recently, we reported a Tennessee pastor who had said during a Sunday sermon that he could not tell people who to vote for in the upcoming school board election. Instead, he reported that when he appeared earlier in the week on a local radio show, he endorsed three candidates and then named them. Brilliant! Well, not really; more like sleazy. Curiously, all three of the minister’s favored candidates lost the election.

Clergy can form political action committees. There was one in Madison, Wis., for many years. They never met or held news conferences at any of their churches or synagogues; they never suggested that they were speaking for persons other than themselves. They spoke out just as other citizens can.

In short, Erik, there is so much legal political activity that pastors can engage in on their own time and with their own resources. I don’t know why you are working so hard to drag their churches into quicksand on Sunday morning.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a longtime civil liberties attorney.

Let pastors be pastors -- even on politics
Counterpoint: Erik Stanley

Barry, you’re willing to let a pastor be a pastor anywhere and everywhere during election season -- except in his pulpit. By your standard, a pastor clad in clerical garb could stand before the church and proclaim, “I am speaking only for myself, and I oppose Sen. Joe Smith for president.” Yet the same pastor cannot walk into the pulpit, open the Bible, and preach a thorough, biblical sermon about how candidate Smith violated moral principles when he enacted legislation leading to a financial debacle on Wall Street. Remarkable.

That is where your fundamental misunderstanding comes into play. The Pulpit Initiative is designed to allow a pastor to be a pastor -- free of government censorship or control and free of fear that if he somehow says something wrong, he will be derided in the media by your organization and even face a visit by the IRS.

In 2004, you called for the IRS to investigate a Catholic bishop who didn’t even mention a candidate by name, saying instead that the bishop’s comments in a letter to church members were nonetheless “code language” for an endorsement. Barry, neither government nor advocacy groups like yours should be the “speech police” to monitor and censor churches.

Bear in mind that the IRS isn’t concerned about “political” speech in the pulpit as such -- a pastor can talk all he wants about a sitting president. But a minister is silenced when it comes to educating his congregation about the moral dimensions of a candidate’s beliefs and actions.

In short, you would disable every religious community from considering the scriptural and doctrinal implications of a candidate while they still have time to do something about it. That is one reason that a pastor’s “individual” right to speak is not enough. Christian pastors have long felt the obligation to inform their congregations on engaging the broader culture. Pastors have praised and panned American military leaders, celebrities, business moguls and even sitting politicians, often to good effect. But when it comes to the congregation’s obligation to vote, vote wisely and vote morally, only one class of Americans gets a free pass from the pulpit’s moral scrutiny: candidates.

You fret about the use of “church assets,” but the real weight of the church comes from 2,000 years of moral wisdom, not one Sunday’s collection plate. If there really were an issue about money, that’s what campaign finance laws are for. What you don’t do is chill or kill free speech to fix another problem indirectly.

Most remarkably, you paint a future picture of churches gone politically wild. History has a much different assessment. From when the Constitution was ratified in 1788 until 1954, no law stopped pastors from speaking freely about the moral qualifications of candidates for office. For 166 years, churches kept on being churches; pastors did not devolve into “political bosses” even when they often spoke forcefully about candidates’ moral virtues and vices.

To be sure, the government often wrinkles its nose at free speech, but that’s why we have a 1st Amendment. That amendment stops the trampling of free speech.

Erik Stanley is senior legal counsel and head of the Pulpit Initiative for the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith.