Is it fair to ask a religious leader to separate faith from politics when he or she takes the pulpit?
For nearly 60 years, churches and other 501(c)(3)s have functioned under restrictions of the Johnson Amendment, which explicitly prohibits, as the IRS website details, "directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."
Simply: If a church wants to maintain its tax-exempt status, it cannot enter into the partisan political fray.
Enter Mark Cowart, senior pastor of the Colorado Springs-based, multi-site Church For All Nations ministry.
"There used to be pre-election sermons," Cowart, 54, tells the Independent in an interview. "It used to be that the people would come to the church and the pastors would examine the character, the issues and the policies of the candidates, and the church would hear what the word of God says, and then they could make decisions based on the word of God."
According to Cowart, this needs to happen again today. He says Nov. 6, 2012 will bring the most critical election in history.
"We have a president in office now that, I do not believe, has the values of our founding fathers," he says. "We have a president in office that is so pro-abortion, so now we aren't just talking about a political issue. We are talking about a moral issue."
So a few days later, standing in front of a sepia-toned American flag and before a congregation of roughly 2,000, Cowart breaks down his thoughts on the upcoming presidential election. He promotes the Republican stance on abortion, gay marriage and health care. He defends a Christian's support for a Mormon politician; he calls attention to what he calls Obama's "hostility toward people of a Christian faith," and his "preferential deference" to Islam.
"I didn't like the fact that Romney was a Mormon, but I'll tell you what: He's got my vote," Cowart concludes to applause. "Because of the issues from the word of God. "
Free to campaign
Cowart is one of seven local religious leaders who took part this past Sunday in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a nationwide movement organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit that coordinates for legal assistance on religious and conservative issues.
The first Pulpit Freedom Sunday took place in 2008, with 33 pastors across the nation openly discussing partisan issues from their pulpits. This year, on its fifth anniversary, that number grew to more than 1,500.
To date, the IRS has not punished any church or pastor for participating. But, Cowart says, ADF is essentially "hoping, wishing, praying" for this to happen. Participating pastors, he says with a laugh, have invited the IRS to their churches to hear politically charged sermons; they have sent the IRS copies of their notes, or even recordings. Cowart says that he hasn't taken such an overt approach, but notes that his sermon is online for all the world to see.
The idea, explains Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with ADF, is to push the issue into court. Then, he says, "We will have a test case, and we will seek to have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional."
Then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson introduced the amendment in 1954 to deal with what he thought was inappropriate campaigning by tax-exempt entities. But Stanley says it infringes on the First Amendment's guarantee to religious freedom.
"You don't get more to the core of religious freedom than a pastor preaching from the pulpit on a Sunday morning." Pulpit Freedom Sunday is less about the restriction on talking about candidates and elections, he says, than "the fact that there is a restriction on the pulpit at all. What we are trying to do is remove an unconstitutional restriction."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, points out that "these clergy are acting like outlaws" as they do this. She notes that what they're facing isn't unique; all 501(c)(3)s are required to refrain from political campaigning.
But when she looks at John Roberts' Supreme Court, she recognizes why the government might not want to see its case unfold there.
"I think that the IRS is being circumspect, and I think that they should be circumspect," Gaylor says. "I do not think that the Supreme Court would be so lost to all common sense and reason to overturn this, but it is not a good court."
Follow the money
Rev. Steven Baines, with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, grew up in the Baptist Church and was ordained with the Southern Baptists. He says he was taught that the separation of church and state inherent to the Johnson Amendment was critical to church freedom.
"Imagine what that would mean if houses of worship were let free to do exactly what corporations are doing," says Baines, now affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. "It would be reprehensible as a minister to think that I would use my pulpit to the benefit of one political party or another. That's just not the gospel that I was taught."
And it might attract some unwanted attention.
"Pastors who really want the IRS regulation to be dropped, should be very, very careful about the consequences," he says. "If you are going to play by the rules, you're going to invite the IRS into your books to look at your record-keeping, to look at how you are spending your money. And as a true advocate of religious freedom, we don't believe the government should be doing that."
Churches, currently, are not required to fill out tax forms detailing their income and expenses.
Stanley dismisses Baines' concern as "extremely remote." He also has very little patience for Gaylor's main concern: that ADF wants to establish a special status for houses of worship, in which untraceable donations can be used to the benefit of a political party or candidate. He calls this a "scare-tactic response."
"Even if the Johnson Amendment were to go away, in order for tax exemption, churches still would have to demonstrate a charitable purpose," Stanley says. "It's not as if they could do any and all political campaigning that the church wants to. They still have to demonstrate that their primary purpose is a charitable purpose."
According to Giving USA, the Chicago-based foundation that reports on charitable giving in the United States, $98.55 billion was given to religious organizations in 2011. Gaylor worries about those billions of dollars being unleashed, without a tracking mechanism, into the political realm.
"What would happen is that they would also use their wealth to directly endorse and influence elections," she says. "There would be no financial accountability to the public."
The ability to opaquely attract and spend funds would certainly be attractive to politicians and parties.
"We've got this huge problem with corporations being unaccountable for what they are spending," she says. "If we had churches doing the same thing, our democracy would sink. And all of the politicians would be pandering to churches, to get the congregations to go out campaigning for them, and to give them money."
Look at church lobbying for state referenda, which is allowed under current IRS regulations, Gaylor says. "The reason why we have 30-plus states adopting anti-marriage equality amendments to their state constitutions is because of the churches lobbying freely. That is crossing the line."