Pulpit Freedom Sunday, October 7: Will IRS respond this year?

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an annual event where religious leaders demonstrate their contempt for American law and freedom of speech by endorsing candidates for public office from the pulpit. They claim that IRS regulations stating that they may not do so or lose their tax-exempt privileges violate their “religious liberty”.

They’re counting on the IRS sitting idly by and doing nothing in response to this challenge. In past years, they’ve been correct:

Pastor Jim Garlow will stand before congregants at his 2,000-seat Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, California, on Sunday, Oct. 7, just weeks before the U.S. presidential and congressional elections, and urge his flock to vote for or against particular candidates.

He knows such pulpit pleading could endanger his church’s tax-exempt status by violating IRS rules for a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. A charity can take a position on policy issues but cannot act "on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." To cross that line puts the $7 million mega-church’s tax break at risk.

Even so, Garlow not only intends to break the rules, he also plans to spend the next four months recruiting other pastors to do the same as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On that day each year since 2008, ministers intentionally try to provoke the IRS. Some even send DVD recordings of their sermons to the agency.

Last year, 539 pastors participated. This year organizers expect far more. Participants want to force the matter to court as a freedom of speech and religion issue.

"I believe we’re on the early stages of the next great awakening," Garlow told his congregation last year. "We’re going to see it just sweep across this nation."

The situation is fraught with peril for the IRS, which needs to be seen as apolitical. When it cracks down on political activities proscribed by the 501(c)(3) regulations, it is inevitably branded as partisan.

When the target is a church, mosque or synagogue, enforcement puts two fundamental American values at odds: freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. Although the agency has enforced the tax-exemption rules against churches in the past, it has so far ignored the provocations of Freedom Sunday.

The IRS has also been silent about the increasingly aggressive political activity of the U.S. Catholic bishops, who have called for their own Fortnight for Freedom this week. Masses, rallies, and parish bulletins are being mobilized against the Obama administration’s healthcare regulations on contraceptives.

Do the Dominionists really want to see a challenge in court? Of course not; they would lose.

What they want is what they’ve achieved so far. Under the Obama administration, the IRS has not dared to take action against flagrant repeat violations of the law. This year, weeks before the election? They will remain silent yet again.

What will be the result?

This will be the fourth year in a row that the IRS has been well aware of violations and taken no action. The IRS will have–no, has already–established a precedent of not prosecuting the offense.

So?

Let’s suppose you own a house next door to a park. People cut through your yard every day to get to the park, and you do nothing about it for several years (how long depends on the jurisdiction). One day, you decide to put up a fence and stop the people crossing your yard. They sue. They win. It’s called “adverse possession”; by not stopping the trespass early, you gave tacit permission to the public to use your property.

This is likely to fall under the same principle. And that is what the Dominionists really want, to establish precedent of this anti-American behavior being tolerated by the IRS, and show that yes, the US government does willingly give special privileges to organizations that don’t follow the rules attached to those privileges.

Did I say privileges? Yes.

Tax-exempt status is a special privilege accorded to certain non-profit organizations. One of the rules that comes with that status is agreeing not to engage in political campaigning for or against candidates. Church leaders can campaign for whomever they wish; they just have to give up the special privilege.

This year, it’s time to start demanding action from the IRS.

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