Pastors nationwide are flaunting IRS regulations
that forbid endorsing candidates from the pulpit, but the agency is looking the other way and refuses to take action against the ministers, despite facing legal action.
The IRS admits at least 100 churches may be breaking rules that do not allow them, as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, to engage in political campaigns, reports Politico.
But this year, the number of pastors who endorsed candidates in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" has gone from 33 people in 2008 to more than 1,600 this year.
According to the effort's organizers, Alliance Defending Freedom, the effort is now telling pastors that they can back the candidates they choose on any Sunday up until the election, not just on one Sunday.
As a result, church leaders are endorsing candidates in some of the nation's most high-profile races, including choosing Republican Thom Tillis over Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the close North Carolina race and picking Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky.
Normally, charities are barred from engaging in political campaigns, but pastors can still discuss abortion, gay rights, and other controversial issues in their sermons. But because churches don't pay taxes and the donations people make are tax deductible, candidate endorsements equal using tax-exempt money for political purposes, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which sued the IRS in 2012 for failing to restrict church campaign endorsements.
The group settled its suit this summer under the understanding that the IRS would stop the activity, but Commissioner John Koskinen said in an interview last month that the IRS isn't planning a crackdown soon.
The law in question was written back in 1954 by then-Texas Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, after several charities endorsed his opponent and said he was soft on communism.
But pastors say that the law infringes on their First Amendment rights and that the government has no right to control what goes on in churches.
And many of the pastors are daring the IRS to take action.
"If by chance a member of the IRS gets this sermon and is listening, sue me," said evangelical pastor Jim Garlow of the San Diego-based Skyline Church, after endorsing Democratic Rep. Scott Peters for re-election. Peters' challenger, Republican Carl DeMaio, is gay and Garlow warns he could advance a "radical homosexual agenda."
In the past, however, the IRS enforced the law more, including taking a New York church's tax-exempt status away after claiming voting for President Bill Clinton was a sin.
Pastors say they should be able to endorse candidates because of their religious status.
"When you find leaders promoting policies that in go in direct opposition to God’s law, that’s where it’s the job of the Church to speak out," Indiana-based Rev. Ron Johnson told Politico.
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