Political pulpit speech should be free but not tax-exempt

Editor’s note: The follow editorial appeared in Bloomberg News

The line between religious belief and political action is often indistinct. But pastors demanding government tax preferences for political crusades have clearly crossed it.

We will see a brazen example of this today, when the organizers of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” seek “to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or control.”

The plan is for pastors to make explicit candidate endorsements in their churches, tape the endorsements and send the incriminating evidence to the Internal Revenue Service. They are daring the federal government to sue them for violating a long-established rule that restricts churches and other organizations that benefit from tax-deductible charitable donations from engaging in partisan politics.

Apparently, though, this is a battle the federal government would like to avoid. Sunday’s protest will mark the fifth consecutive year of defiance, yet the government has taken no action against pastors.

“No pastor has been punished or threatened with punishment by the IRS for participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” wrote Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group backing the protest.

And that, Stanley told FoxNews.com last week, is precisely the problem. “We’re hoping the IRS will respond by doing what they have threatened,” he said. “We have to wait for it to be applied to a particular church or pastor so that we can challenge it in court. We don’t think it’s going to take long for a judge to strike this down as unconstitutional.”

Stanley might be surprised. This is not a battle for free speech — in the pulpit or out. It’s a test of whether Americans are willing to allow a taxpayer subsidy to be used for partisan political activity.

The law provides every church a double benefit: It allows congregants to make tax-deductible donations to the church, and it frees the church from paying taxes on its income and holdings, including land. The law states that those exemptions apply as long as a church “does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for political office.”

In effect, what the law cannot abide is political actors claiming religious tax benefits.

There is no shortage of political speech in the United States. If pastors wish to jump into the political fray and openly endorse candidates, they are welcome to do so. Some among their ranks have done all that and more. But to expect fellow citizens to subsidize those activities is a bit much.

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, participation in Pulpit Freedom Sunday has grown from 33 pastors in 2008 to 539 in 2011. In a country with about 345,000 religious congregations, that tally hardly suggests a national phenomenon. So it’s perhaps understandable if the IRS exercises restraint in the hope the protests fade.

But it may be necessary, before long, for the IRS to provide the pulpit protesters with the legal confrontation they so desperately seek, if only to underscore a basic point: The freedom of religion the pastors have and the public subsidy of politics they desire are not the same.