PROTESTANT PULPIT FREEDOM SUNDAY SILLINESS
This Sunday, some Right-Wing groups have announced “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” They say they are challenging IRS rules that prohibit 501(c)3 organizations from endorsing candidates. In fact, they tried this stunt before and despite a lot of fanfare in advance, all of their participating churches chickened out and did not explicitly endorse a candidate (so much for civility and truthfulness).
No Catholic parishes are participating in this conservative stunt. In fact the Catholic Church forbids the Mass to be used as a means of endorsing a political candidate and forbids Church funds from being used to promote the election of a candidate. This is not something imposed by the IRS on the Catholic Church but a position of principle she freely embraces and would practice even absent any IRS regulations.
But let us review exactly what the Protestant Pulpit Freedom folks are talking about.
First of all, this is not about taxing churches. Churches can apply for a variety of tax exempt statuses. A non-profit organization can engage in politics and support or oppose candidate. That is what the Republican National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Romney for President Committee, the SuperPACs and most political organizations do. All of them have 501(c)4 or related tax exempt status. Any church organization could choose this status and be tax exempt.
However, what most religious organizations do is choose a different tax status of 501(c)3 or related. This not only exempts the organization from taxation, but also allows it’s contributors who itemize on their tax returns (most people do not itemize) to claim a tax deduction as well.
The Catholic Church agrees with this blog that it is a matter of justice that the Church not be taxed. However, it is a matter of prudential judgment to give the further benefit of allowing a minority of private persons a tax deduction for their donations. To be granted this extra benefit (not for the Church herself, but for some of her donors) an organization must apply for the status and agree to the conditions including that the organization not endorse or oppose candidates for office.
This does not mean the Church cannot speak out on important (or unimportant) issues of the day. But it must be about issues and not elections. It also does not mean that clergy in their private capacity can do what they want as private individuals including being involved in political campaigns. But it can be fairly said that for a church to apply for a special tax status that not only exempts itself from taxation but also lets her contributors take itemized deductions and then disregard the conditions it had sworn to, is dishonest and sinful.
We will hear a lot of crazy talk from Right-Wing Protestant organizations on Pulpit Freedom Sunday. I hope this sober explanation is helpful in cutting through the silliness they expound.