4th pulpit protest will test laws on freedom of religion and speech

-by Bob Smietana

October 1, 2011- For the past four years, pastors in Nashville and around the country have tried to pick a fight with the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS has refused to fight back.

The pastors are challenging an IRS ban on endorsing candidates from the pulpit, which is based on rules that forbid nonprofits from taking part in political campaigns. Preachers say the ban violates their rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

“I don’t want anyone censoring what I say in the pulpit,” said the Rev. Henry Coles of World of Faith Christian Center in Nashville, with a congregation of about 400.

Coles is one of 475 preachers nationwide signed up for Pulpit Freedom Sunday this weekend, according to the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that organized the event. Most will endorse candidates and then send their sermons to the IRS.

If the IRS investigates them, the Alliance Defense Fund will sue.

“The issue of whether the IRS can censor what a pastor says in the pulpit has never been tested in court,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.

Clergy should think twice before breaking the law, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“Americans attend church for spiritual guidance, not to get a list of candidates to vote for on Election Day,” Lynn said in a statement.

The ban on nonprofit political endorsements dates to the 1950s. Lyndon B. Johnson was mad at nonprofits that opposed his re-election, so “he rammed these rules through to punish his opponents,” said Richard Hammar, editor of Church Law and Tax Report.

The IRS has not punished any pastors involved in Pulpit Freedom events. Hammar said both conservative and liberal churches often ignore the ban without consequences.



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