Yesterday was Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an event coordinated by the anti-gay legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom.
In years past ADF used Pulpit Freedom Sunday to invite pastors to break the IRS rule which prevents churches and other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from advocating for or against political candidates. ADF’s goal was to provoke a lawsuit that would, they hoped, result in the courts striking down the rule, known as the Johnson Amendment.
Since 2013 is not a major federal elections year, ADF decided this year to ask pastors to preach against marriage equality instead. “The Supreme Court is poised to render decisions on two cases by the end of June that could redefine marriage,” ADF wrote last week. “Make sure your congregation knows where the Church stands on marriage. The Bible has not changed. God’s Word remains true that homosexual behavior is wrong and that marriage is as God Himself defined it in the beginning pages of Scripture – between one man and one woman only.”
Legally it is uncontroversial to preach about homosexuality and marriage, and doing so breaks no IRS rules. Yet in its video pitch for the event ADF misled pastors to believe that they would put their church’s tax-exempt status at risk by doing so. From their video “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”:
In 1954…future president Lyndon Johnson pushed an amendment through Congress that made it unlawful for churches to participate in the election process. Since then, the Internal Revenue Service has insisted that pastors remain silent regarding political campaigns, candidates and issues, or risk losing their church’s tax exemptions. [emphasis added]
It is patently untrue that IRS rules prevent pastors from speaking out on issues from the pulpit. Pastors routinely extoll the virtues or vileness of marriage equality and many other social and political issues from the pulpit. As long as a church does not “devote a substantial part of their activities to attempting to influence legislation” or advocate for or against candidates, pastors are free to say whatever they want without fear of losing their tax-exempt status.
In fact, ADF’s allies in the marriage discrimination business routinely recruit pastors to exhort their congregations to oppose marriage equality, and they use ADF-generated materials to quell the very fears that the Pulpit Freedom Sunday video tried to instill.
For example, in 2012 Preserve Marriage Washington established “R74 Regional Petition Centers” to gather signatures for a voter referendum on Washington’s new marriage equality law. The centers were frequently located in churches (see photo, right).
At the same time, Preserve Marriage Washington distributed a letter written by ADF senior counsel Erik W. Stanley which assured pastors that they wouldn’t risk to their church’s tax-exempt status by holding marriage referendum petition drives at their church, or by preaching against the marriage equality law. On the contrary, the letter encouraged pastors to get involved. From the letter:
I write to encourage you and your church to support the referendum protecting traditional marriage in Washington. Under current IRS regulations churches may distribute and encourage their members to sign the referendum petition. Churches may even expend their resources to assist the referendum effort. Pastors may leverage their influence or their position in the church to support the referendum if they so choose. Church facilities may also be used to support the referendum. …
Churches must lead the charge on this issue as they led the charge in the past on the great moral issues of history such as independence, slavery, women’s suffrage, ending child labor, and civil rights. Churches and pastors have always been at the forefront of the great moral issues confronting our culture. They have never been afraid to stand for righteousness and to urge morality in culture. And today should be no different.
Churches in Washington have a tremendous opportunity to lead the charge to protect marriage. Churches in other states have not been as fortunate. There is nothing legally preventing churches and pastors from standing together to support and protect marriage in Washington.
Why would ADF choose to mislead pastors in their video but give them assurances elsewhere? Perhaps ADF is simply too disorganized to provide consistent legal advice. Or perhaps it is willing to deliberately alter its legal advice to suit its proximate political goals.
The possibility also exists that ADF thought that appealing to some pastors’ martyr complex would boost participation in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. At last report, only about 1,100 pastors had signed up to participate this year. That’s only 0.3% of the 350,000 congregations nationwide – not a stunning turnout.
In any case, ADF’s video warning may have needlessly generated anxiety for participants who, as David Badash observed at The New Civil Rights Movement, “may think they’re engaging in an act of civil disobedience and are breaking the law in the name of God,” but in truth aren’t.
All that anxiety for nothing.