The first question was, “When does a church sermon become ‘too political’?” Your answer to the question is buried deep in your editorial – that “clergy are free to preach and promote anything short of an outright endorsement of a political candidate.” If you knew the answer, why was it necessary to surround it with all that misdirection?
The second question was, “More importantly, who gets to decide?” That requires a bit more explanation to arrive at the answer, which again was arrived at correctly but through a tunnel of innuendo and half-truths.
Indeed, the Internal Revenue Service does get to decide because the whole issue is a tax issue. The IRS does not get to “censor” speech from the pulpit, but it does have the responsibility of enforcing the federal tax code, which says that 501(c)(3) organizations, whose contributions are tax-deductible for the donor, cannot participate in campaigning for a political candidate for any office.
IF A PASTOR wishes to campaign from the pulpit, it simply means that his/her church gives up its 501(c)(3) status and that donations to that church are no longer tax deductible. The pastor is free to speak as he/she sees fit. He/she will not be arrested for anything he/she says.
In fact, the Sierra Club decided to give up its 501(c)(3) years ago for a 501(c)(4) so that it could endorse candidates. Donations to the Sierra Club have not been tax-deductible since the Sierra Club made that decision, but it seems to have had little effect on the influence of the Sierra Club. Maybe some churches would prefer to be able to endorse candidates and would be willing to sacrifice their 501(c)(3) status.
No other 501(c)(3)s (United Way, Audubon, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Americans United) are allowed to endorse candidates because contributions to those organizations are tax-deductible, and such contributions must not be used to advance partisan politics. We have political action committees for that.
A 501(C)(3) STATUS is granted by the IRS to an organization because the IRS deems the mission of the organization to be beneficial to its community. The mission of most churches is religion, which is presumed by the IRS to be a beneficial mission. The IRS also assumes that a church is a nonprofit organization. That assumption is a huge advantage for churches because other nonprofits are required to submit Form 990s to the IRS to essentially prove that they are nonprofits. Churches are not required to do that. Maybe they should be to show that they are indeed nonprofits.
In recent years, the IRS has not been enforcing the endorsement prohibition on churches, apparently because of political pressure. But there are signs this may be changing, and the IRS recently signaled that it has an enforcement mechanism in place.
It is apparent from The Chronicle’s editorial that the editorial staff is a bit confused by the different clauses in the First Amendment to the Constitution. They have conflated the freedom of speech clause with the separation of church and state clauses, but nowhere in the First Amendment is there a “freedom from taxation” clause that the editorial seems to assume.
While you may not agree with the mission of groups that support church-state separation, in this case they have a valid point. Tax-free donations should not be used to support specific candidates.
(The writer is president of the Central Savannah River Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.)