TEXAS FAITH: Why should the government say whether churches can preach politics from the pulpit?
Question by Wayne Slater
That’s this week’s Texas Faith question. Is it time to repeal the law forbidding churches engaged in partisan politics from the pulpit? Our Texas Faith panel of experts weighs in.
AMY MARTIN, director emeritus, Earth Rhythms; writer, Moonlady Media
More than one-quarter of the U.S. population does not affiliate with organized religion. What was the top reason they cited for fleeing churches, synagogues and temples? Politics from the pulpit. Should conservative Christians succeed in their quest to destroy the separation of church and state, the numbers of people leaving organized religion will soar to exponential levels. Quite quickly, the balance of power will shift.
Churches’ freedom of speech isn’t free if I have to bear their tax load. For insight, visit TaxTheChurches.org. Among all age ranges there is escalating anger at the tax-free lifestyle of millionaire ministers and mega-churches that pour their immense wealth into lavish buildings and services rather than charitable endeavors. According to a University of Tampa study, taxing churches could add $71 billion to federal coffers. Losing that tax-exempt status would be a disaster for those modest churches that truly walk Jesus’ talk and do the heavy lifting in charitable outreach, and thus a disaster for us all.
When Christian conservatives gathered recently in Iowa to hear from potential presidential candidates, nothing was a bigger applause line than the idea of allowing politics to be preached from the pulpit. Iowa opens the presidential nominating process with its first-in-the-nation caucuses. Plenty of would-be Republican nominees were there a week ago – including Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
Religious leaders regularly preach moral issues, both those on the right and the left. But partisan politics has been off limits from the pulpit since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Houses of worship are granted tax-exempt status. In return, they’re not allowed to endorse candidates. The Internal Revenue Service is the agency is charged with enforcing the law and withdrawing the tax-exempt status from any offending church. As a practical matter, the IRS hasn’t pursued cases. That prompted a nonprofit atheist organization in 2012 to file suit, demanding a strict separation of church and state. Last month, the suit was dismissed after the IRS assured it “no longer has a policy of non-enforcement against churches.”
Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, defended the church side against the lawsuit. In an interview with the on-line site The Daily Signal, Blomberg raises an issue that increasingly comes up in election years: Should the government have any role limiting what a pastor says in the pulpit during a religious service? So here’s where we are: A law aimed at curbing partisan politics by houses of worship. An agency that’s supposed to uphold the law, but isn’t. Considering the situation as it now stands, what should be done? Should we repeal the law and regulations restricting what pastors can say from the pulpit? Should we actively begin enforcing the law and strip offending houses of worship of their tax-exempt status? Should we simply do what we’re doing now and not enforce the law?