From his column God, Government and Me—Money in the Church

god-government-me-09-13-1No freedoms are more central to the American experience than freedom of speech and the freedom to exercise religion. Laws regulating the political speech of churches are an “untenable mix,” according to a report issued in August 2013 by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations. The commission, which was formed by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), is comprised of 14 nationally recognized religious leaders. It was formed in response to a 2011 inquiry by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

“Given the untenable mix of vagueness in the law, violations without consequences, limited and inconsistent enforcement, and the lack of respect for the law and its administration that inevitably results, something needs to change,” Commission Chairman Michael E. Batts wrote. The commission reports that its members and 66 others, representing every major faith group in the U.S., who served on three panels created by the commission, had “much accord” that “a member of the clergy should be permitted to say whatever he or she believes is appropriate in the context of a religious worship service without fear of government reprisal, even when such communications include content related to political candidates.”

The “communications” noted by the commission should be within the ordinary course of a 501(c)(3) church’s regular and customary . . . exempt-purpose activities ... so long as such communications do not involve the disbursement of tax-deductible funds.

In a three-page introduction to the report, Batts stated, it is “both disturbing and chilling that the federal government regulates the speech of religious organizations and other organizations dedicated to improving the lives of people.” The prohibition against a church’s support or opposition to political candidates is “the only law of its type on the books ... that allows the Internal Revenue Service to evaluate the content of a sermon delivered by a member of the clergy,” and "the only law that could cause a church to lose its federal tax exemption based on the words spoken by its leaders in a worship service.”

He went on to say federal officials “know instinctively that the law, as currently interpreted and applied, is problematic—which is why the law is largely unenforced in some respects and inconsistently enforced in others.” He said the practical effect of the law’s vagueness is “to chill free speech—often in the context of exercising religion.”

Batts added that many churches engage regularly in communications that the IRS says are prohibited, and there are no consequences, “Yet, the IRS does enforce the law on occasion, in a variety of ways, giving rise to understandable claims of selective or inconsistent application of the law.”

Opinions vary from one church to another as to whether it is appropriate to engage in certain political communications. Having the freedom to do something does not, of course, create an obligation to do it. The view of a church about whether to engage in certain types of communication may change over time as both the church and our culture continue to change.

In 2012, more than 1,600 churches participated in the Alliance Defending Freedom Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative, deliberately engaged in activities that violate the prohibition as interpreted and applied by the IRS by preaching sermons from the pulpit that evaluate candidates running for political office in the light of Scripture. The IRS has not (with one negligible exception) pursued enforcement actions with respect to this large effort to challenge the law.

The commission report recalls the history of how this controversial part of tax code was passed into law in the first place. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) added the provision in 1954 on the Senate floor with a voice vote. There was no national or even congressional debate before it became law.

Additional information on the commission’s report, including an Acrobat PDF download, is available here.

Dan Busby, President of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), is a nationally recognized author and speaker and a member of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations.

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