Across America, Pastors Assert First Amendment Rights Where They May Be Most Precious � In the Pulpit Clergy Stand Up For Free Speech

Across America, Pastors Assert First Amendment Rights Where They May Be Most Precious – In the Pulpit

It is not mere coincidence that the Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of religion and freedom of speech first in sequence among the Bill of Rights. Of all the inalienable, fundamental rights that they sought to protect, these freedoms were foremost in their minds. After all, without freedom of religion and freedom of speech, no nation can be truly free or democratic.

It is therefore appropriate that clergy across America struck a simultaneous blow for both rights this week.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Scottsdale, Arizona-based organization of ministers, protested Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax laws that stifle their free speech rights. Correctly asserting that these laws violate the Constitution, the ADF encouraged both liberal and conservative ministers to engage in civil disobedience by speaking freely and endorsing candidates whose principles align with their own. The ADF also pledged to legally represent these pastors against any subsequent onslaught by the IRS or tort bar.

The First Amendment to the Constitution unequivocally states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Despite this, federal tax laws nakedly abridge churches’ freedom to speak in any way that can be construed as endorsing, opposing, favoring or criticizing a political candidate.

Specifically, Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code, silences religious leaders by commanding that they are:

“absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective political office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns, including campaigns at the federal, state and local level. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes. Those Section 501(c)(3) organizations that are private foundations are subject to additional restrictions.”

The language of this law is obviously vague and overly broad, thereby inviting government intrusion and prohibiting clergy from speaking freely about matters lying at the very core of their religions. Even worse, the IRS website expands the prohibition far beyond express endorsements, and asserts the bureaucracy’s right to serve as judge, jury and executioner:

“Political campaign intervention includes any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office. The prohibition extends beyond candidate endorsements… [T]hey will violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention if they engage in any activity that favors or opposes any candidate for public office. Certain activities will require an evaluation of all the facts and circumstances to determine whether they result in political campaign intervention.”

Thus, churches, synagogues and other religious institutions are censored from speaking out on any issue that could even be construed by some activist tort lawyer to somehow “favor or oppose” any candidate.

Think about the possible implications of these laws for a moment.

Regardless of one’s substantive views on abortion as a political matter, should a priest be prohibited against speaking out against abortion during an election year because it might be construed by the IRS or trial lawyer as “favoring” a pro-life candidate, or “opposing” a pro-choice candidate?

Or imagine, for instance, that a member of the Nazi party was running for office, either nationally or in a local race somewhere in America. Should a synagogue be prohibited from speaking freely and openly about the danger that such a candidate would pose to its Jewish members? If an openly supremacist and segregationist despot ran for office, should a black pastor be prohibited from speaking out on the potential danger such a person poses?

Yet, like clockwork, a liberal activist group calling itself Americans United for Separation of Church and State has already filed a complaint with the IRS, urging prosecution of ADF ministers who exercised their free speech rights.

The simple fact is that nobody should be more free to speak without fear of punishment than religious leaders. Yet IRS laws paradoxically dictate the opposite. This is based on the theory that free speech rights must be surrendered in return for tax-exempt status, a “privilege” in a tax-it-if-it-moves society. But that punishment – to organizations that could not successfully exist if forced to pay all taxes – is not contemplated by the Constitution.

And allowing ministers to speak their minds doesn’t in any way violate the mythical “separation of church and state,” since these ministers aren’t government officials. The ADF and its members are to be applauded for defending the First Amendment, and Americans should support this important cause regardless of religious persuasion.

October 2, 2008
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