Ambulance chasing for Jesus

(Photo/goatopolis, Flickr)
(Photo/goatopolis, Flickr)

Egged on by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund legal firm, 33 church leaders across the country have vowed to break federal law during their sermons this Sunday, Sept. 28. The so-called “Pulpit Freedom Day” action is a call for pastors to flaunt federal law and deliver full-on endorsements of political candidates.

But some religious leaders — including Richard Cizik of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, and Catholic Archbishop John Favalora of Miami — have warned pastors not to risk losing the benefits that come from tax-exempt status.

“The role of the church is not to be like the ‘party boss’ who goes around telling people how to vote,” Favalora wrote in a Sept. 17 newsletter.

In a recent interview, Cizik opined, “I do know it’s true the people in the pews get their cues from the pulpit, but I don’t think that we should endorse candidates. I don’t think that churches were created to be grist in the machinery of politics.”

“I tell people to resist the political temptation to endorse candidates,” continued Cizik, who oversees national government affairs for the nation’s largest organized group of evangelical Christians. “I don’t think that attempting to yank the IRS’s chain is prudent, nor do I think it’s particularly ethical.”

Cizik says he has advised pastors who feel compelled to share their views about candidates and upcoming elections to step down from their pulpits for those discussions — rather than addressing the congregation as the embodiment of the church. In an extensive interview with the Colorado Independent this week, Cizik, speaking for himself, criticized John McCain for a lack of principle, but stopped short of endorsing Barack Obama.

“My general counsel is what is legal and not legal in order to show respect for the law,” Cizik said.

But lawyers for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal firm that was founded by Focus on the Family CEO James Dobson and other far right evangelical Christian leaders, argue that “pastors have a right to speak freely.”

“We believe the law is unconstitutional,” said ADF legal counsel Dale Schowengerdt.

ADL attorneys hope that Sunday’s action will set off a chain of events that result in a lawsuit challenging the federal government over the rule. Their effort has already resulted in a complaint by three former IRS chiefs that the conservative law firm — itself a nonprofit — is organizing a “mass action” designed to encourage other nonprofits to break the law.

But even while it is encouraging others to break the law, the ADF has placed a disclaimer on its own web site noting that as a tax-exempt organization it does not endorse or oppose political candidates. Schowengerdt declined to identify any churches whose pastors plan to endorse from the pulpit on Sunday. He did say that none of the 33 churches that lined up for the test case this Sunday are in Colorado.

“We’re not releasing names beforehand — we’ve had concerns about people going to disrupt services, and so we’re keeping the [participating churches] confidential until afterward,” he said.

Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, dismisses Schowengerdt’s claims outright.

“Having a tax exemption is a benefit, not a constitutional right,” Boston said. Federal law, he notes, prohibits churches, which benefit from not having to pay taxes, from using its resources for blatant political purposes.

Boston underscored another, more nuanced point.

“People go to church to get close to God, not to be told who to vote for or against,” he said. “Increasingly people of faith are saying they want the religious community to step back from politicking in church, or in their houses of worship.”

Church leaders, of course, already have the ability to speak about their political views as individuals.

For example, Ted Haggard, the former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, often spoke passionately about his conservative political convictions — but stopped short of offering up actual endorsements from the pulpit. Speaking as a private individual in 2006, Haggard issued a letter endorsing Kyle Fisk, a Republican running for the Colorado state House, two months before he was fired amid a meth- and gay-sex scandal.

And Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has generated past controversy, telling Catholics that, in his view, voting for politicians who are pro-choice is a sin.

This week Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger did not return phone calls to clarify whether Dobson’s massive Colorado Springs ministry and media empire is supporting the ADF’s “Pulpit Freedom Day” call to endorse. Focus on the Family has been targeted in recent years, unsuccessfully, by groups that have accused Dobson, who has made a name for himself as a Republican presidential kingmaker, of blurring the lines between politicking and evangelizing.

In an e-mail, Haggard’s replacement, Pastor Brady Boyd, described the planned action as “not a position that I feel strongly about right now.”

“We are focusing on helping people, and meeting the needs of our community.”

That said, Boyd continued, “I respect my fellow pastors who are participating. America has always been a country where people could voice their opinions or disapprovals about the law and protest for change. This is the essence of democracy.”

While the ADL has refused to identify any participating churches, two news organizations have found pastors in Bethlehem, Ga., and in Warroad, Minn., who say they plan to defy the IRS.

“As a pastor, I have the right to speak biblical truth without being punished for it,” the Rev. Jody Hice, pastor of Bethlehem First Baptist Church in Georgia was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, saying he plans to endorse Sen. John McCain for president on Sunday. “The IRS does not have the role of censoring speech from the pulpit.”

And in Warroad, Minn., Pastor Gus Booth of the 150-member Warroad Community Church told Christianity Today that he also expects to endorse John McCain. Booth was a Minnesota delegate to the Republican National Convention.

“If we can tell you what to do in the bedroom, we can certainly tell you what to do in the voting booth,” Booth said.

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