Erik Stanley

Many of you by now have heard about an event that has taken place each year since 2008 where pastors from across the country look at the positions held by candidates running for office, evaluate how those positions line up with Scripture and, based on that evaluation, either favor or oppose a candidate from the pulpit. The event, sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, is called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. This year, it occurs on Oct. 2.

Far from being a publicity stunt or an attempt to ram political candidates down the throats of their congregants, these pastors have taken part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a means to bring a constitutional challenge against the Internal Revenue Service’s censorship of what they can say from the pulpit. This happens to be about candidates and elections, but the point is one of quintessential free speech: whether the average person believes a pastor should talk about candidates and elections from the pulpit or not, it’s not the government’s job to make the decision.

The pastors who have participated have not attempted to hide what they did. In fact, they sent their sermons to the IRS, all with the goal of creating a constitutional test case.

Under the Internal Revenue Code, a pastor cannot apply Scripture’s teachings to candidates for office in a way that favors or opposes a candidate without endangering his church’s tax-exempt status. But it had not always been this way. Throughout American history pastors spoke out from their pulpits either in support of or in opposition to candidates for office whenever those pastors believed a moral or biblical issue was raised by the election. Sermons addressing candidates for office go back all the way to the election of 1800 when Thomas Jefferson was running against John Adams. No one ever questioned a church’s tax-exempt status when a pastor spoke this way.

Why? Because churches receive tax exemptions as a matter of constitutional right, not legislative grace. The U.S. Supreme Court stated decades ago that the power to tax involves the power to destroy, and no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion exists than to tax it out of existence; therefore, tax-exempt status for churches has existed independently of any special grant of privilege from the IRS. Regardless, the government cannot condition a status that it grants upon the surrendering of a constitutionally-protected right.

Erik Stanley

Erik Stanley is senior legal counsel, director of Church Project with Alliance Defending Freedom.