Every year on one particular Sunday, almost 2,000 Evangelical pastors get up in their pulpits and denounce and sometimes even endorse candidates for federal office. Isn’t this illegal? Doesn’t this violate the law that prohibits non-profit organizations from saying anything positive or negative about candidates for federal office? The pastors don’t think so, and they are waving the bloody flag right in the IRS’s face. Come and get us, if you dare.
Some pastors actually tape their sermons and send them to the IRS. The Reverend Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a group founded by anti-Catholic Protestants, has lodged formal complaints with the IRS. But after several years, the IRS still hasn’t moved. None have lost their tax-exempt status. None. And this has been going on since 2008.
“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” was the idea of Alliance Defending Freedom, the $30-million-a-year non-profit law firm that specializes in life, faith, and family issues. They are 37-0 before the Supreme Court. They are salivating over the prospect of the IRS going after one of these Evangelical churches. They believe they can bust down the façade whereby the IRS has bullied clergy into silence.
The IRS is explicit. Nonprofits who are tax exempt “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns, including campaigns at the federal, state, and local level.” It is pretty clear this applies to many non-profits such as The Catholic Thing. But does it apply to pastors in their pulpits?
Lyndon Johnson got this restriction in the tax code in 1954 when, according to Alliance Defending Freedom, he needed to “keep two nonprofit organizations in Texas from supporting his political opponent, but the amendment had the effect of restricting the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit.”
Keep this in mind this Sunday when your Catholic pastor will likely offer up anodyne comments about the importance of voting and not much else. At least in my own parish, the pastor last week said the life issues were the most important ones. But most people are not that lucky. And even this excellent pastor said a voter guide on the non-negotiable life issues could not be distributed in the church parking lot.
Those who fight for life and family issues are rightly frustrated during election season by the lack of real engagement by the clergy. The official guidelines from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – which are duplicated in many, perhaps all, state Catholic conferences – do not even allow leafleting in church parking lots by outside groups.
The Catholic Association, a 501 (c) (4) nonprofit that is allowed to politic, has been eager to distribute voter guides related to the Virginia gubernatorial campaign pitting pro-life Catholic Ken Cuccinelli against pro-choice Catholic Terry McAuliffe. But they’ve been frustrated so far. Catholic parishes in Virginia just won’t allow it for several reasons.
First, the guide clearly favors Cuccinelli on the hot-button social issues. Second, they say, the issue range on the guide is too narrow. Voter guides must demonstrate the wide-range of interests of the Church. Do you know what this wide range includes for the state Catholic Conference of Virginia? Uranium mining.
Uranium mining may be an important issue to a small number of people in some part of Virginia. But uranium mining simply cannot rise to the level of the fight for the unborn, traditional marriage, and religious freedom. What’s more, wouldn’t uranium mining come under a category where Catholics are legitimately free to make prudential choices? Does the Catholic Church of Virginia really have expertise on uranium mining? Should it even try to suggest as much?
Some years ago, when dissident Catholic John Kerry ran against George Bush many Catholics rose up against him. He lost not only the faithful Catholic vote but the generic Catholic vote as well – those people who have not darkened a church door in fifty years, but dutifully tell pollsters they are Catholic. Kerry even lost these folks.
At the time I wrote to the readers of a newsletter published by the Culture of Life Foundation in which I called Kerry a bad Catholic. We were reported to the IRS by Catholics for a Free Choice, and the IRS dutifully grabbed us by the neck, shook us, then let us go with a promise that we would never ever call a candidate for federal office a bad Catholic or any other negative thing.
Prior to that election, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was about to release its quadrennial voter guide, in which issues such as the minimum wage were given equal moral status with the killing of unborn babies. After years of fighting, pro-life Catholics finally raised such a stink that the USCCB voter guide was scrapped altogether.
Which brings us to the upcoming election and beyond. Wouldn’t it be something if the Catholic Church, certainly more powerful than 1,000 individual unaffiliated Evangelical churches, let its pastors off the leash and let them talk about candidates?
If the IRS won’t go after tiny Evangelical Churches, does anyone think they would go after the Catholic Church? And so what if the Church lost its tax exemption? Pew sitters would still give. And the only taxable income would be from Church businesses and not from gifts deposited in the collection plate.
By banning the distribution of outside voter guides that demonstrate one candidate is better on Catholic teaching than the other, and not letting Catholic priests preach on these issues, the bishops are handing a victory to candidates who work to harm the Church.
I say let the people know that Terry McAuliffe might be better on uranium mining than Ken Cuccinelli. How could that hurt?