Pulpit Politic

Friday, September 26, 2008


Tax law gives houses of worship non-profit status and, in exchange, clergy are supposed to steer clear of politics, meaning they can't endorse a candidate by name. But the Alliance Defense Fund is encouraging clergy to do just that this weekend. ADF's Erik Stanley explains their goals, while Reverend Eric Williams says the restrictions are a vital barrier between church and state.

Comments [12]

Scott from New Jersey

The MLK Jr. excerpt is incredible.

Oct. 14 2008 01:31 AM
Jack from Chicago

Surely taxation is the ultimate breaching of separation of church and state.

Oct. 01 2008 02:31 PM
D. Sean West from Seattle, WA

The flaw in Stanley’s argument is that he incorrectly begins his legal reasoning at the point where churches are tax-exempt institutions and then goes on from there to say it is a violation of the 1st amendment (mostly the free speech prong of the first amendment, he didn’t go too much into religious/state entanglement) to revoke their tax-exempt status for endorsing a political candidate. The correct starting position for this discussion though should be with churches not as tax-exempt institutions but as regular institutions which are then granted tax-exempt status by the government for specific reasons and when they break those underlying reasons they loose they exception that was granted to them. So churches are free to endorse any candidate they like, or preach racial segregation for that matter, just not with taxpayer subsidies.

Sep. 30 2008 12:06 PM
Dan Gregson from Salt Lake City, UT

Michael L, here's a link to Martin Luther King's speech "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" - http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/sermons/680331.000_Remaining_Awake.html. Hope that helps!

Sep. 30 2008 01:13 AM
michael l from portland oregon

where can i find complete audio of Martin Luther King's speech used in this story? i found it incredibly inspiring, and have been copy/pasting different portions from the transcript into google for an hour now to no avail...
concerning the issue of this story, i say tax them all and let God sort it out...

Sep. 30 2008 12:46 AM
Bill MacDonald from Virginia

This story framed the question in terms the ADF wanted: Is the rule against endorsing political candidates from the pulpit a violation of the separation of church and state? Because of this, listeners may have been led to believe that the government unfairly singles churches out.

The discussion of the *actual* state of the law was muted, even during the interview with Rev. Williams. Churches are not treated any differently from *any* other tax-exempt charitable organization. *All* organizations to which contributions are tax-deductible are forbidden to speak out for or against any political candidate. Period. Any charity that does like that restriction can give up the ability to accept tax-deductible contributions.

The ADF is asking for *special treatment* for churches, allowing them to continue accepting such contributions while they advocate specific candidates. That is definitely a violation of the separation of church and state. Yet the ADF and this story make it sound like churches are being punished for being churches. In reality, they are being limited, in exchange for a tax benefit -- but not to any greater or lesser degree than any other organization.

Your reporter made no effort to make this clear, allowed ADF to hammer exhaustively at its red-herring argument, and limited Rev. Williams's comments to those addressing ADF's point of view. Either this was careless journalism, or your reporter was biased. Neither is worthy of National Public Radio.

Sep. 29 2008 02:28 PM
Bob Perkins from Seattle

Yep, just allow churches to promote specific candidates and we'll see every political party, every PAC, every lobby, every organization "where two or more people are gathered" in the name of anything remotely resembling a god, suddenly become surprisingly religious.

Sep. 28 2008 10:06 PM
Jim Beachboard from Little Rock, Arkansas

First, there were numerous religious denominations in colonial Armerica. Second, separation of church and state was and is a one way street-- i.e., the federal government shall make no law establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof-- all that has followed is gloss and dribble. Third, may this Counrty never have a latter day Hitler reach for power, and our religious bodies, in cowed response, determine to remain silent.

Sep. 28 2008 04:16 PM
Marc Naimark from Paris, France

I'm on the board of a 501c3 organization, and we are at times called on to comment on political issues. We are extraordinarily careful not to even get close to the line. Endorsing a candidate for office? That is so far beyond the line, that I hope the IRS manages to shut these so-called charities down for good.

You want free speech? Fine. Pay for it yourself, and don't expect taxpayers to subsidize you for it.

Sep. 28 2008 02:30 PM
Mark P from San Mateo, CA

I just want to compliment the producers on the selection of the excerpt from a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of the segment. Not only is the speech appropriate to the piece, but many of his comments seem to apply uncannily well to the situation the country is in right now.

"We've come to believe somehow that we are God's appointed agent to be, a sort of policeman of the whole world. We are arrogant in feeling that we have everything to teach other nations and nothing to learn from them. ... We are arrogant in talking about / we are concerned about the liberties of others oversees, and refuse to set our own house in order."

Sep. 28 2008 02:23 AM
Robert C Freeman from Toronto, Ontario

Surely a tax exemption is itself the ultimate in breaching the barrier between Church and State.

Sep. 27 2008 04:59 PM
Kurt Johnson from Des Moines, IA

You failed to distinguish between "tax exempt for income taxes", "tax exempt for property taxes" and "income tax deductions for donors to charitable organizations". Political campaigns, advocacy groups and many other types of organizations are "not for profit" and therefore are tax exempt for federal income taxes. This tax exemption would not be affected if a minister advocated for a particular candidate from the pulpit. Property taxes are based on state laws, and many states exempt religious organizations from property taxes. But state laws were not the subject of this program. The status of a church as a charitable organization is what is at issue here. If an organization is granted "501c3" status, they are considered a charitable organization for federal income tax purposes, and this gives an income tax deduction to contributors to those charities. This is the tax deduction that is at risk if a minister advocated for a candidate from the pulpit. Political campaigns and advocacy groups may be "not for profit" and "income tax exempt", but contributors to political campaigns and advocacy groups do not get to take a take a "charitable" deduction for contributions made to those organizations. The issue here is equal treatment and how do you define a charity. Endorsement of a candidate from the pulpit is not a charitable activity and charitable tax deductions should not be given to those who contribute to organizations that advocate for particular candidates.

Sep. 27 2008 09:12 AM

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