Sunday, October 5, 2014 has been designated as Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Several different organizations and individuals, including noted Christian historian and President of WallBuilders, David Barton, are encouraging ministers across the country to use this Sunday as an opportunity to challenge the notion that the church pulpit should not, and cannot according to Internal Revenue Service regulations, be used to preach messages that endorse different political viewpoints and candidates. A special web site at www.pulpitfreedom.org has been dedicated to this effort.
Even though Pulpit Freedom Sunday is being organized by some noted people, should you participate in such an event?
First of all, it should be noted that the court decisions and regulations regarding Section 501 (c)(3) of the Tax Code are rather specific in that churches are not allowed to engage in “electioneering.” Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an effort to challenge the constitutionality of those provisions, basically to state that “the church” should not be stifled in its speech on political matters. If a minister in his individual capacity can endorse a candidate, then why shouldn’t a minister standing in the pulpit be able to do the same thing? For a number of years, hundreds, and now thousands, of churches have staged a protest by being “political” on Pulpit Freedom Sunday on a designated day in September or October. Last year, hundreds of churches participated openly in Pulpit Freedom Sunday – and the IRS did nothing.
Nor does anyone expect the IRS to take action against the churches that participate this year – at least on the reason of the church’s participation in this event.
Since the IRS cannot audit a church without approval by a specific Assistant Secretary of Treasury (a position that was not funded by Congress), the ability of the IRS to perform a full audit on a church is rather limited. However, of late we have seen the IRS go after churches on payroll tax issues, thus opening the door to in-depth looks “behind the church house doors.” This is exactly what happened to a Church of God congregation in Virginia. While they were ultimately exonerated from any payroll tax wrongdoing, the decision came only after having to produce thousands of pages of documents, tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and more than two years of efforts.
According to reports from Christian news services, there are currently 99 churches under review for payroll audits.
So while a church that participates in Pulpit Freedom Sunday may not get audited for their political activities, they may face the same folks from the IRS in a payroll audit.
Therefore, it is my opinion, any church or pastor that participates in Pulpit Freedom Sunday should be aware that they are taking a direct stand against what is currently recognized, and accepted, as the law of the land regarding non-profits getting involved in political activities. If they do take such a position, the minister and church should be prepared to expend the funds necessary to fight a protracted legal battle. While many believe that such provisions would be overturned if the courts looked at the Constitutional questions, the minister and church should also be prepared for a negative result – and a result that could have even more harmful ramifications than the current law.
Basically, the bottom line is that a church and minister should participate in such expecting the worst possible results.