Preaching politics is protected speech in America…unless you do it from the pulpit. Religious organizations that get involved in electioneering risk getting stripped of their tax-exempt status. The debate over that rule, recently revived by an IRS audit in Pasadena, has united activists of many political stripes. Bob takes a closer look at one contentious intersection of church and state.
BOB GARFIELD:: On Halloween 2004, two days before the presidential election, the congregants of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California heard a guest sermon from their former rector. The Reverend George Regas preached that, quote, "Good people of profound faith could justify voting for either President Bush or John Kerry." But Regas also lashed out at the war in Iraq, making it clear enough which presidential candidate he deemed the right moral choice. Seven months later, the church was informed by the Internal Revenue Service that its tax-exempt status was in jeopardy because the sermon violated a 51-year-old statute prohibiting electioneering from the pulpit. To some, the sudden intervention of the IRS in the affairs of a liberal anti-war congregation seemed positively Nixonian. The General Secretary of the National Council of Churches called the case a "political witch hunt." But the matter of the IRS versus All-Saints Episcopal has raised much larger questions, questions about freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the future of the church as a medium of political dialog. And though these may sound like the familiar hot-button issues of the card-carrying civil liberties-worshipping left, the plight of a liberal California church is suddenly a cause celebre on the other side of the ideological world.
CHARLIE HAYNES: Religious conservatives are worried about this, and I don't think they like this case any more than people on the left.
BOB GARFIELD:: Charlie Haynes is a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, Virginia.
CHARLIE HAYNES: Because actually the only time that a church lost its IRS exemption was when an upstate New York church placed ads calling a vote for Clinton a sin. And the IRS went after 'em and revoked their tax exemption. So, yes, people on the conservative Christian side of the argument are worried about these kinds of cases because they are very politically involved. In fact, that's why they've encouraged the Congress to pass a bill that would change the IRS regulations.
BOB GARFIELD:: Haynes refers to the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, sponsored by North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones, which would permit political speech in religious services and gatherings. Peter Sprigg, Vice President for Policy at the Family Research Council, would love to see it passed.
PETER SPRIGG: I don't think anybody is saying that churches should actually be allowed to formally endorse and campaign for individual candidates for office during an election campaign, but I think they should be granted a great deal of deference in terms of their ability to speak out on issues of concern to them, even if that might involve criticizing somebody who happens to be running for office.
BOB GARFIELD:: Sprigg may not much sympathize with Reverend Regas's view on Iraq, but he does sympathize with the intersection of religion and social policy, which is more or less the Family Research Council's business. The conservative Christian lobbying organization has relied heavily on churches to mobilize its faithful to political action, a strategy he says certainly not invented by the religious right.
PETER SPRIGG: We at the Family Research Council, for example, are trying to reach out more to pastors and churches to enlist their support in some of the efforts that we're making in our culture. But, as I said, I want to emphasize that probably the history of doing this, there's a much longer history of political activism in liberal churches than there is in conservative churches. I mean, much of the civil rights movement was based specifically in churches. Much of the anti-Vietnam War movement was based in churches. So are conservatives trying to mobilize their constituents and using churches to some extent to do that around the issues we care about? Well, yes. But we're certainly, if anything, latecomers to that process.
BOB GARFIELD:: It's tempting to see this as a clear-cut First Amendment case in which the government arbitrarily discriminates against religious organizations to restrict worship and speech. But is it really a civil liberties question? Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says no. BARRY LYNN: A church that tried to raise that gave up at the federal appeals court level, not even taking it to the Supreme Court, because they knew they had no credible First Amendment claim.
BOB GARFIELD:: The relevant tax code statute, Lynn points out, equally affects a host of other non-profit organizations which qualify for tax-exempt status because they're charitable institutions. They're free to speak out on any subject they choose, but they have to decide whether they are charities or political action committees. If they are charities, with the tax privileges thereof, the government draws the line at electioneering. BARRY LYNN: And I don't, frankly, want to change the law either, even though there are people in Washington who would love to unleash mainly conservative mega-churches into the political process by allowing them to be both tax-exempt and also endorse candidates. In my view, even the most narrow reading of Mr. Jones's legislation would essentially turn the churches of America into cogs in a political machine.
BOB GARFIELD:: The Freedom Forum's Haynes agrees that unleashing these sometimes huge institutions as arms of political campaigns, Republican or Democrat -
CHARLIE HAYNES: - would really blow apart our campaign finance laws. But there are, I think, reasonable arguments to be made that this limitation on what a pastor can say from the pulpit during a political campaign is going too far in limiting free speech.
BOB GARFIELD:: It's an interesting dilemma, the goal of keeping the political process as fair as possible against the goal of preserving basic freedoms. It's especially interesting when you recall that the statute was itself a political instrument, essentially sneaked into law by then Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, fearing pulpit attacks against himself in his reelection race. And it is more interesting still when you consider that one of the reasonable arguments to which Haynes refers is the whole of American history in which religion and politics are inextricably intertwined.
CHARLIE HAYNES: Since the founding of the American Republic - in fact, before the founding in the Revolutionary period, pulpits were often the place where people were called to action on one side or another. Every major social movement in the United States has been fueled in large measure by the involvement of religious groups on one side or another, whether it's abolitionists or the temperance movement, suffrage, even labor unions.
BOB GARFIELD:: It's also worth noting that separation of church and state is meant to keep the government from adopting a particular faith, not to keep the faithful from participating in government. On the other hand, he who pays the piper calls the tune. And when the government is subsidizing charities via tax exemptions, maybe it's within its right to say, "Hey, you, pipe down." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is called on the carpet, and an epic disaster the media mostly forgot.