Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Say What You Like, But...

Trey Smith

Pastor Jim Garlow will stand before congregants at his 2,000-seat Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, California, on Sunday, October 7, just weeks before the U.S. presidential and congressional elections, and urge his flock to vote for or against particular candidates.

He knows such pulpit pleading could endanger his church's tax-exempt status by violating IRS rules for a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. A charity can take a position on policy issues but cannot act "on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." To cross that line puts the $7 million mega-church's tax break at risk.

Even so, Garlow not only intends to break the rules, he also plans to spend the next four months recruiting other pastors to do the same as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On that day each year since 2008, ministers intentionally try to provoke the IRS. Some even send DVD recordings of their sermons to the agency.

Last year, 539 pastors participated. This year organizers expect far more. Participants want to force the matter to court as a freedom of speech and religion issue.

"I believe we're on the early stages of the next great awakening," Garlow told his congregation last year. "We're going to see it just sweep across this nation."

The situation is fraught with peril for the IRS, which needs to be seen as apolitical. When it cracks down on political activities proscribed by the 501(c)(3) regulations, it is inevitably branded as partisan.

When the target is a church, mosque or synagogue, enforcement puts two fundamental American values at odds: freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. Although the agency has enforced the tax-exemption rules against churches in the past, it has so far ignored the provocations of Freedom Sunday.
~ from As Churches Get Political, IRS Stays Quiet By Nanette Byrnes ~
I've seen this argument before and, for the life of me, this is not an issue of freedom of speech versus separation of church and state. This is a tax issue!

Simply put, the US Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, but nowhere in the document does it guarantee the right of tax exemption! The latter is a privilege extended by the government and this privilege is extended within a set of parameters. One of these parameters involves not taking positions on political candidates.

This parameter in no way hinders the speech of charitable organizations because they don't have to be charitable (non-taxable) ones. If a particular group wants to advocate for or against political candidates, they can apply to be a 501(c)(4) or some other type of organization.

This is a case of some organizations wanting their cake and eating it too. They want to be tax-exempt, but they don't want to be bound by tax-exempt rules. Put another way, they want to get out of the responsibility of paying into the system while, at the same time, trying to influence the system in a particular direction.

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