Free speech based on location?

genemichaelhoughtonnytHere at GetReligion, we try to jump on major religion-beat stories pretty quick. Thus, I want to apologize for missing an important development in the controversial "Pulpit Initiative" movement that is sure to draw waves of coverage in the next three or four days.

What did I miss? I missed this headline in a few mainstream newspapers, in this case the Chicago Sun-Times: "Openly gay bishop endorses Obama."

Here's the top of the report:

CONCORD, N.H. -- The Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for president on Thursday, even though they don't share the same views on issues critical to gays and lesbians.

''Frankly, I don't think there's any major candidate that is where we in the gay community would hope they would be on our issues,'' V. Gene Robinson said in a conference call with reporters. ''That being said, I would say the senator has been enormously supportive of our issues. We appreciate his support for civil unions.''

The twist, of course, is that this story ran in August 2, 2007.

It also must be stressed that the report notes that "his endorsement was as an individual, not as bishop." This endorsement was not delivered from a pulpit. Thus, this was not big news.

There's the rub. The conservative pastors who are poised to challenge the I.R.S. plan -- apparently -- to deliver their endorsements from their pulpits. But note that we do not know, yet, whether they plan to speak for themselves when they do whatever they plan to do or in the name of their congregations. If you click here, you can see my take on some of the other legal wrinkles that could unfold this coming Sunday.

Please note the question raised by Robinson's action long ago: It is legal to endorse a candidate outside the sanctuary, but not in it. Free speech rights depend on where you are standing and the time you speak the words. Yes, I also know that it is crucial whether a cleric speaks for himself or in the name of the church. That's part of what may or may not be tested by the "Pulpit Initiative" crowd.

Meanwhile, the New York Times published a story that was much more definitive about the strategery that will be used this Sunday, as opposed to that Los Angeles Times report that I discussed in my first post on this topic. Here's the top of Laurie Goodstein's report:

Defying a federal tax law they consider unjust, 33 ministers across the country will take to their pulpits this Sunday and publicly endorse a candidate for president.

They plan to then send copies of their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service, hoping to provoke a challenge to a law that bars religious organizations and other nonprofits that accept tax-deductible contributions from involvement in partisan political campaigns.

The protest, called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, was organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a consortium of Christian lawyers that fights for conservative religious and social causes. When the fund first announced the protest this year, it said it planned to have 50 ministers taking part. As of Thursday it said it had hundreds of volunteers, but had selected only 33 who were fully aware of the risks and benefits.

As you would expect, the Alliance Defense Fund team is not anxious to publish its list of potential lawbreakers. Then again, Goodstein quotes one participant as saying that he planned to "make a recommendation" about the merits of the candidates. "Endorsement" is a very strong word, you see. Too strong.

Drat it. I didn't think of that legal option. I'll have to add it to my list.

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