When does a church sermon become “too political”?
More importantly, who gets to decide?
A prominent atheist/agnostic group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, believes it should be the Internal Revenue Service. It even sued the IRS in 2012 to try to force it to scrutinize the tax-exempt status of churches it believed were dabbling too much in politics.
The Wisconsin-based foundation – the same group that forced the city of Augusta to change how it conducts the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast series – voluntarily dropped the federal suit last month after reaching what it called a satisfactory agreement with the IRS.
If you would like to know exactly what that agreement says, you’re not alone.
The agreement has not been made public, nor has the IRS stated what new protocols, if any, it agreed to as part of the deal.
All anyone knows about the July 17 agreement is that the foundation is happy.
“This is a victory,” Foundation President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement. “We’re pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions.”
Be cautiously skeptical about that last part. We’ve seen what happens when the IRS is encouraged to challenge the tax-exempt status of organizations for their alleged political views. Does the name Lois Lerner ring a bell?
The reason all IRS investigations are currently on hold is because Lerner and her partisan lackeys targeted nonprofit Tea Party conservative groups.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the foundation’s efforts
specifically are trying to silence the Christian community.
“Given the history of the IRS in harassing, persecuting and infringing on the First Amendment rights of Christians and other people of faith, this is a deeply disturbing development,” he said.
Was it not the preaching of religious leaders – Christians, particularly – that helped shape public policy issues such as
abolition and civil rights? Should the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have been discouraged from speaking up?
This is precisely why the Founding Fathers sought to protect religious freedom of expression in the First Amendment. Interpretations of that constitutional right generally have held that clergy are free to preach and promote anything short of an outright endorsement of a political candidate.
But the foundation, which advocates strict separation of church and state, cited the so-called Johnson Amendment as the legal basis for its lawsuit involving a Milwaukee-area Anglican church. The tax code amendment – named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson – prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
The foundation’s goal was to have the IRS question churches and other houses of worship where priests, pastors, rabbis and other clergy preach on moral issues in a way that has “political implications,” according to Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund, which opposed the lawsuit.
“The IRS has implicitly recognized that it can’t punish houses of worship for a minister’s sermon to the congregation, but it constantly threatens enforcement without ever following through,” Blomberg told the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal. “And that’s why the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued – it wanted more than threats, it wanted censorship.”
The suit was dismissed without prejudice, meaning it can be revived at any time. And, again, whatever the IRS said it would or would not do to appease the foundation is still unknown.
So while the lawsuit’s dismissal looks on the surface like a victory for religious free speech, churches of all faiths should be concerned about the naked attempt of militant atheists to use one of the government’s most powerful agencies as its attack dog.
Americans can disagree about whether their religious leaders veer too far into the political realm. But most can also likely agree that the IRS has no business monitoring and censoring the sermons they hear.