Politics in the pulpit: New election wrinkles in the age of YouTube

WASHINGTON – In the first election cycle since YouTube became an Internet phenomenon, a pastor might find that his Sunday sermon is no longer simply a conversation with his flock. The words can travel around the world in a flash.

If those words have a message favoring one candidate over another, it could prompt a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service and threaten the church’s tax-exempt status. But one Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization sees that as a violation of the free speech rights of religious leaders and plans a nationwide challenge Sept. 28, a day that has been dubbed Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

The Alliance Defense Fund says at least three dozen religious leaders in 20 states have agreed to evaluate the candidates in light of Scripture in their homilies that day and make a specific recommendation on which candidate to support. If the IRS acts on a complaint against them, they have pledged to file suit against the IRS, with the hopes of bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

Although the Alliance Defense Fund is not naming those who plan to participate, it’s not a cause that is likely to attract a lot of Catholic clergy, said Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and author of “Politics and the Pulpit: A Guide to the Internal Revenue Code Restrictions on the Political Activity of Religious Organizations.”

That’s because Catholic priests operate under the jurisdiction of their bishops or religious superiors, she said, and because of the “closed-pulpit tradition” of the Catholic Church, which does not allow for guest homilists who are not priests, except in limited circumstances. It would be against that tradition for a Catholic priest to invite a candidate into the pulpit, as many Protestant and nondenominational Christian pastors have done in recent years.

But candidates will continue to seek out church congregations to address, because “candidates want to go where the people are – and on Sundays, that’s at church,” Ms. Dessingue said.

The candidates don’t always understand that going to churches during a campaign “is not like going to Wal-Mart or the local diner,” she added.

To help both candidates and churches avoid problems, the IRS’ Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Division sent a letter earlier this year to the major political parties and some minor ones, outlining what is and isn’t allowed for tax-exempt organizations, including churches.

“Organizations may encourage people to participate in the electoral process by sponsoring debates or forums to educate voters, distributing voter guides or conducting voter registration or get-out-the vote drive,” said Steven T. Miller, division commissioner, in the letter. “If the debate or forum, voter guide, or voter registration or get-out-the-vote drive shows a preference for or against a certain candidate or party, however, it becomes a prohibited activity.”

In recent years Americans United for Separation of Church and State has taken up the job of keeping the IRS informed about violations of the ban on political activity by tax-exempt organizations. Its 50 complaints to the IRS dating back to 2002 have included three Catholic dioceses – Providence, R.I., in 2007; Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2004; and Santa Fe, N.M., in 2002 – but no individual Catholic churches or clergy.

The complaints focused on an open letter written by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence to Rudy Giuliani, then a Republican presidential candidate; a pastoral letter by Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs that said Catholic politicians who support abortion, fetal stem-cell research or euthanasia “place themselves outside full communion with the church and so jeopardize their salvation”; and a flier distributed in parishes of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe that urged rejection of a Democratic gubernatorial candidate because of his views on abortion.

The IRS is prohibited by law from revealing whether it has acted on any specific complaints. Miller said in his letter that less than half of the allegations of political campaign activity received by the IRS since 2004 have resulted in an investigation, and the IRS recommended revocation of tax-exempt status only in “a few egregious cases.”

The Alliance Defense Fund contends that pastors have not only a right but a religious responsibility to guide their congregation members in all facets of their lives – including their political choices.

“Many Americans’ attitudes and actions toward slavery, child labor, civil rights and even the American Revolution itself started in the pews of our nation’s churches,” said Alan Sears, Alliance Defense Fund president, CEO and general counsel, in a Sept. 9 article on the organization’s Web site.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.