Apples, oranges in political pulpits

fullpage 11Clearly, we are going to see a wave of coverage this weekend -- perhaps peaking on Monday -- focusing on the Alliance Defense Fund and the protests being planned under its "Pulpit Initiative." As a guy with a degree in church-state studies, I am both fascinated and stunned by what is about to happen. It's like preparing for a giant -- yet scheduled -- train wreck, and a strategic one, to boot. But here is the key. I am not sure that anyone knows precisely what is going to happen this coming Sunday.

I say that, after reading the following report in the Los Angeles Times. Here's the start of Duke Helfand's report, which ran with the double-deck headline, "Pastors plan to defy IRS ban on political speech -- Ministers will intentionally violate ban on campaigning by nonprofits in hopes of generating a test case."

Setting the stage for a collision of religion and politics, Christian ministers from California and 21 other states will use their pulpits Sunday to deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates -- defying a federal ban on campaigning by nonprofit groups.

The pastors' advocacy could violate the Internal Revenue Service's rules against political speech with the purpose of triggering IRS investigations. That would allow their patron, the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund, to challenge the IRS' rules, a risky strategy that one defense fund attorney acknowledges could cost the churches their tax-exempt status. Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt groups to publicly support or oppose political candidates.

Now notice, right up front, that the lede contains an apple and an orange. What does it mean to say that clergy are going to "deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates." What is a "political sermon" and what, precisely, makes a "political sermon" a violation of U.S. law?

There are all kinds of legal layers here. Let me sketch out a few.

(1) Take, for example, a priest who follows guidelines and preaches a sermon against abortion and related life issues on "Respect Life Sunday," the first Sunday in October.

(2) But wait. This year, there will almost certainly be Catholic priests who stress that there are a wide array of life issues, other than abortion, that must be taken into account in the voting booth. This can be interpreted as offering theological cover for most Democrats, including the candidate for the White House.

(3) Then there are priests who will read Vatican statements that abortion is the issue that towers over others, a unique form of absolute evil. Some may even say that it is wrong to vote for candidates who actively support an unfettered right to abortion. Will these be political sermons? Wink-and-nod endorsements?

(4) It is also common for sermons to be delivered, in a wide variety of ethnic churches, that include statements by the pastor that say something like this: "This candidate is one of us." Then everyone stands and cheers, while the pastor and the candidate embrace. Is that an endorsement?

(5) What about pastors who strictly stick to a social, moral or religious issue in a sermon -- yet also say that it is sinful to vote for any candidate, in either party, who violates what the pastor believes is the biblical stand on that issue? These sermons can focus on the war in Iraq, abortion, universal health care, gay rights, etc. Are these "political sermons"? Do they, for all practical purposes, serve as endorsements for some candidates over others?

(6) Finally, what if the pastors say, "Now, brothers and sisters, I cannot tell you who to vote for! But I am going to vote for (fill in blank here), a long, longtime friend of this church." Is that a personal or corporate endorsement?

So what are these "Pulpit Initiative" preachers going to do? All of the above? Will they openly endorse a candidate or pronounce an anathema on one?

Near the end of the Los Angeles Times piece -- I think this information needed to go higher -- we read:

The defense fund issued seemingly contradictory statements about the initiative. On one hand, it insists pastors will not endorse candidates and will simply exercise their constitutional rights by addressing "the differing positions of the presidential candidates in light of Scripture."

On the other hand, the defense fund describes its efforts as a "strategic litigation plan" that seeks to "restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural truth from the pulpit" without losing a church's tax-exempt status.

"The bottom line is that churches and pastors have a right to speak freely from the pulpit," said Dale Schowengerdt, a defense fund attorney working on the project. "They should not be intimidated into silence by unconstitutional IRS regulations or rules."

That doesn't tell us much, now does it?

Stay tuned. This may get very, very complicated. But I guess that is the point. Repeat after me: Religious liberty is messy, but it beats all of the alternatives.

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