Sunday was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an event that was part of an Alliance Defense Fund project (See “Two O.C. pastors challenge IRS rules from the pulpit,” September 29, 2008, Los Angeles Times online). Participating clergy across the U.S., including at least one in Orange County, openly preached in support or opposition to candidates for political office. These acts were violations of their houses of worship’s tax exemptions under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
The free speech of everyone, including clergy, is protected by our First Amendment. Indeed, clergy routinely address public policy concerns, support or oppose legislation, and endorse or oppose ballot referenda.
However, despite the claims of these clergy and the Alliance Defense Fund, the IRS is not singling out houses of worship. The only restrictions on houses of worship and every other non-profit organization that holds a tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) are the prohibition on the endorsement of or opposition to specific candidates for public office and the use of their resources in such campaigns. Thousands of educational, scientific, charitable and literary organizations holding 501(c)(3) status are barred from electioneering. The only potential penalty for non-compliance is the loss of 501(c)3 status for the organization.
This all begs the question, what was their point? The IRS should pursue the violators and challenge their Section 501(c)3 status. Working for the public good (and its privilege of tax exempt status) does not and should not include the “right” to use one’s special status to influence and alter the election of candidates.
Churches and other houses of worship should not become tax free PAC's.