Political Speech Limits on Churches: A Chill on Free Speech

Commentary by Donald P. Shoemaker

Long Beach Press-Telegram & Los Angeles Daily News (Nov. 2, 2012)

In 1960 a Roman Catholic was running for president and fundamentalists were producing pamphlets such as “The Pope for President.”

I went to hear a Pentecostal pastor’s sermon, “Why I Won’t Vote for a Roman Catholic for President.” I didn’t know at the time, nor did he I’m sure, that the sermon broke the rules.

October 7 was Pulpit Freedom Sunday when more than 1,500 pastors agreed to introduce political statements into their sermons as an act of civil disobedience to challenge the IRS rule forbidding the practice. That rule forbids tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations from supporting or opposing any candidate seeking an elected office.

This election season two Roman Catholic parishes have opposed Barack Obama’s re-election, and the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State have called for IRS investigations against them and others. On the other side of the spectrum, we’ll likely see Democratic candidates at church gatherings getting warm support.

It is important to remind ourselves that the IRS rule doesn’t rise from a constitutional principle. If anything, the U.S. Constitution would argue against it, with its First Amendment guarantees on free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to assemble and hear what some in government might not like.

No, the rule is relatively recent, rising in 1954 from a legislative amendment introduced by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who was being bothered by some pesky opponents in his re-election bid.

The amendment became law, and the wording became part of the tax code. At the time of its introduction it went undebated, so its intended reach is not known. But since the senator was receiving religious support in his re-election bid, it is unlikely he ever intended that it become a hammer against election intervention by religious groups.

Why shouldn’t a pastor be able to speak legally from religion-shaped convictions if he or she believes voting for a particular candidate is a sin?

Why shouldn’t priests, who are convinced that new health mandates will force religious institutions to violate core values, voice opposition to candidates they perceive as threatening to their liberties?

Why shouldn’t a liberal cleric be able to call for defeat of conservative candidates?

Fine, critics say, if churches want to give up their tax-exempt status they can say anything they want. But this penalty is an unhealthy chilling of free speech. In our society, giving up tax exemptions would be economically devastating to most congregations and religious ministries [many of which society greatly depends upon].

In more than four decades of preaching I have strongly worked to make the church a politics-free zone.

But should I have the right to make an exception if I judged a candidate to be a blatant threat to religious liberty or to the religious values I hold? What if a local politician was out to punish a religious viewpoint or was hostile to religion in general (not far-fetched possibilities)?

Indeed, I should have the right to speak out.

But the general principle is sound and important. It keeps our message on track and undiluted. It does not drive people from the church through unnecessary partisanship.

The bottom line is that the IRS restriction was badly birthed and should be laid to rest. In the meantime, those of us who speak for our faiths should not look to the tax code to either dictate the bounds of our proclamation or tutor us how to stay on the right religious track.

Donald P. Shoemaker is pastor emeritus of Grace Community Church of Seal Beach.

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