It's Real Simple: Federal Tax Law Forbids Churches to Endorse Political Candidates

By Lynn, Barry W. | Church & State, November 2008 | Go to article overview

It's Real Simple: Federal Tax Law Forbids Churches to Endorse Political Candidates


Lynn, Barry W., Church & State


As I was checking out at the grocery store the other night, I spotted a magazine called Real Simple, a publication with the subhead "life made easier."

What struck me was that it was 276 pages long. Perhaps it is just me, but life would start being easier if magazines like this were, say, 76 pages long. It is full of advertising for products I didn't even know existed. (Who knew you could buy shoes with an air-circulation system built inside or that you could now add "black cherry streusel" flavoring to your coffee?)

It also included articles on how to recycle everything you ever use, how to spend a day with the family picking apples, how to winterize your garden, how to buy new desk chairs, how to avoid over-cleansing or over-moisturizing your skin and even how to find out if your house is haunted. About 200 pages in, you also learn "10 Ways To Be Happier." How about starting by buying a few apples at the store and ceasing to worry about whether your home is haunted until a ghost trips you down the stairs? Just a thought: simplify.

This magazine did make me think about how some lawyers have a habit of taking all kinds of simple things and encrusting them with layers of linguistic and technical mumbo jumbo combined with a complete suspension of common sense.

I don't mean to knock lawyers too much. I am one, after all. But this tendency was apparent among Religious Right lawyers as AU labored prior to the election to stop illegal partisan politicking by churches and other religious charities.

The Internal Revenue Service says tax-exempt groups "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 public office."

This doesn't suggest a huge gray area. Endorsing or opposing a candidate isn't something you do accidentally. Some do it on purpose: The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal outfit, corralled 31 pastors into endorsing candidates from the pulpit on September 28. The ADF assumed somebody would report this activity to the IRS--which AU did--and then if the IRS penalized one or more churches with loss of tax exemption, fines or other actions, the ADF would swoop in and defend them in court.

ADF lawyer Erik Stanley and I were asked by the Los Angeles Times to do a back-and-forth set of online columns each day in the week preceding the so-called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." Over the week, Stanley set up all kinds of objections to the tax law, most of which have been used unsuccessfully in courts before.

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It's Real Simple: Federal Tax Law Forbids Churches to Endorse Political Candidates
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