Parsing the Pulpit Freedom stories

42 16534488So, "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" has come and gone and we have some initial mainstream press reports. So far, the event seems to have been a mixed bag -- much as I predicted last week. Let's walk through several pieces of the Los Angeles Times report, starting at the top:

Pastor Luke Emrich prepared his sermon this week knowing his remarks could invite an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. But that was the whole point, so Emrich forged ahead with his message: Thou shalt vote according to the Scriptures.

"I'm telling you straight up, I would choose life," Emrich told about 100 worshippers Sunday at New Life Church, a nondenominational evangelical congregation about 40 miles from Milwaukee. "I would cast a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin. ... But friends, it's your choice to make, it's not my choice. I won't be in the voting booth with you."

Latter, we read this description of another sermon linked to the Alliance Defense Fund:

Pastor Jody Hice of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bethlehem, Ga., said in an interview Sunday that his sermon compared Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain on abortion and gay marriage and concluded that McCain "holds more to a biblical world view." He said he urged the Southern Baptist congregation to vote for McCain.

"The basic thrust was this was not a matter of endorsing, it's a First Amendment issue," Hice said. "To say the church can't deal with moral and societal issues if it enters into the political arena is just wrong, it's unconstitutional."

At that point, the newspaper calls in an outside expert to evalute the situation and we read:

Because the pastors were speaking in their official capacity as clergy, the sermons are clear violations of IRS rules, said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University. But even if the IRS rises to the bait and a legal fight ensues, Tuttle said there's "virtually no chance" courts will strike down the prohibition.

"The government is allowed, as long as it has a reasonable basis for doing it, to treat political and nonpolitical speech differently, and that's essentially what it's done here," Tuttle said.

Do you see the problem? The expert seems to have assumed that the two pastors said the same thing.

Unless there are additional remarks missing from this story, Emrich offered a personal endorsement and then explicitly said that he could not tell the faithful how to vote. This is a wink-wink strategy that has been used for years on the left and right. In fact, I wrote about a famous case on the left just the other day. Meanwhile, the Georgia pastors seems to have tackled the IRS law head on -- in clear violation.

However, there is no evidence that the Los Angeles Times team realized that it was dealing with two different sermons containing -- yes, it is nuanced -- different messages.

two oranges 636Over at the Washington Post, the Pulpit Initiative story opened with yet another approach to this issue.

Defying a federal law that prohibits U.S. clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an evangelical Christian minister told his congregation Sunday that voting for Sen. Barack Obama would be evidence of "severe moral schizophrenia."

The Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee's positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist "in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures." Johnson showed slides contrasting the candidates' views but stopped short of endorsing Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.

In this case, the pastor proclaimed moral judgment on a politician -- but did not endorse the politician's opponent. This is interesting, since it is very common for pastors -- again, left and right -- to attack the beliefs and policies of politicians by name. This happened in sermons related to the Iraq war, for example. That's free speech about a moral issue. The key is when someone openly endorses a candidate in the name of the religious organization and tells the faithful to vote in a particular way.

Now, it is true that the 1954 amendment to the tax code, as the Post notes, states that nonprofit, tax-exempt entities may not "participate in, or intervene in ... any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office." Part of what the ADF is testing is the meaning of the word "intervene," which could affect behavior broader than open, corporate endorsements. That's the key, you see, and that would affect a wide variety of behaviors that have taken place in the past on the left as well as the right.

Right now, the press is focusing on voices on the right, with counter thrusts from people who are very worried about these activities on the right. I am still not seeing signs that the reporters understand that there are a variety of messages being delivered here and some of them violate the law, as currently written. It is not clear that they all do.

Meanwhile, it's clear that there are some people on the right who are currently in big trouble for using strategies that have also been used on the left. Here's hoping that some reporters start comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges. Again, let's all say our mantra: Religious liberty is messy, but it beats all the alternatives.

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