Friday, November 23, 2012

Freedom of the pulpit

Watch Colbert discuss Pulpit Freedom Sunday here

I tend to favor almost absolute freedom of the pulpit as a political right.

In fact, I am hard pressed to think of when I would limit freedom of the pulpit politically even though I do recognize that harmful and bigoted things are preached all the time.

Freedom of the pulpit is a combination of two other pivotal constitutional freedoms: free speech and the free exercise of religion. This makes it, in my opinion, especially critical.

Religion News Service reports that a new effort to limit the freedom of the pulpit is afoot.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the IRS because they have failed to take tax-exempt status away from 1,500 pastors who participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. They want tax-exempt status taken away from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association because of ads it ran in newspapers asking people to vote along "biblical principles." They are also trying to get tax-exempt status taken away from several Roman Catholic bishops who spoke out against same-gender marriage.

IRS does have provisions that prohibit tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches, from participating in partisan politics or doing too much lobbying. An IRS Tax guide for churches and religious organizations gives examples of what kinds of activities put a church's tax-exempt status at risk. Pastors can endorse a candidate so long as they do so as private individuals and not in settings where they are acting in their official role. Pastors can not endorse candidates from the pulpit without putting their church's tax-exempt status at risk.

Every election season United Methodist pastors get a reminder from the United Methodist General Board of Finance and Administration that endorsing candidates could result in loss of tax-exempt status. (I assume it is not just emailed to me personally.)

I have no desire to endorse candidates from the pulpit. I consider it tacky (which is even worse than being wrong or illegal).

Yet, to punish the free exercise of religious speech by taking away tax-exempt status is dangerous.

Part of what makes this discussion difficult is the fact that there does not seem to be a clearly stated rationale for churches being granted tax-exempt status in the first place.

The most commonly stated justification for tax-exempt status for nonprofit organizations is that they serve the public welfare and therefore should not be subjected to the financial restraint of having to pay taxes. (However, no really clear, consistent, legal policy seems to exist. Read pp. 27ff of this paper by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. Very complex.)

IRS rules are written as though there were no difference between other nonprofits and churches, but churches are different because the free exercise of religion is protected by the constitution whereas doing good works isn't.

I think the idea of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association losing its tax-exempt status for asking people to vote their biblical pronciples is especially serious. What clergyperson doesn't ask his or her parishoners to vote according to biblical principles either implictly or explictly? We just disagree about the core principles the Bible teaches.

I know. I know. Freedom of the pulpit leads to some herendous abuses, like Westboro Baptist Church. I probablty disagree with the people who participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday on many things. But I will defend their right to preach what they preach.

This is different, by the way, from religious denominations or organizations setting limits on the teaching and preaching of its clergy. While I'd hope bishops and such step lightly, denominations should have the power to set limits on the teaching of their clergy.

The government, however, should not have the power to punish religious organizations for their teaching. Taking away tax-exempt status is a punishment. As the Supreme Court once said, the power to tax is the power to destroy.

Besides, voters showed in the last election that they can think for themselves no matter what they are hearing from the pulpit. If preachers keep preaching intolerance toward women and LGBTQ folk from their pulpits, they will just create more nones --people who refuse to affiliate with any religion-- rather than convince people to vote on the basis of intolerant thinking.

I tend to trust the free marketplace of ideas. Limiting the freedom of speech, especially religious speech, is more dangerous than letting people say things we disagree with. The free marketplace of ideas will figure it out.


  1. The left is fine with religion as long as it toes the line of their agenda. The left has no use for religious faith except as it supports their agenda. The left will use the It's that simple.

  2. I think the fear is that groups will form "houses of worship" that are really campaign front groups. As HOWs, these groups can accept unlimited donations and are not required to report their donors.

  3. It wouldn't be the first time folks try to avoid the law by forming a church: