IRS dallies on ruling over conservative ‘Pulpit Freedom Day’ protest

Churches egged on by the Alliance Defense Fund to violate federal law that prohibits tax-exempt churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates are still waiting to learn if their civil disobedience will matter.

USA Today revisits the 7-month saga of “Pulpit Freedom Day,” the brainchild of ADF, the evangelical Christian legal group co-founded by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and other far-right leaders. Thirty-three churches, though none in Colorado, either urged their flock to vote based on conservative political wedge issues or directly endorsed GOP presidential candidate John McCain.

It’s possible the IRS ignored the recent protest because it does not have an incentive to pursue the issue, said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University.

“It would be expensive for them to fight, and it would give people all sorts of reasons to say the IRS is evil and irreligious,” Tuttle said. “It’s not like they’re going to recoup a lot of money. Their attitude is probably ‘why bother?”‘

Or, it could be too early to say. When similar violations occurred during previous presidential elections, the IRS took two or three years to introduce litigation to strip a church of its tax-exempt status, said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.

“Even so, if the IRS wanted to pounce on this, I think it would have by now,” Witte said. Perhaps it did not consider an investigation a wise use of resources, he speculated, or maybe the agency is occupied with more pressing cases.

[Erik] Stanley, the ADF’s attorney, said the organization will continue its protests as long as necessary, holding annual Pulpit Freedom Sundays every year ahead of federal, state or local elections. If the IRS does not take action against future protests, he said, pastors will learn the regulation can be safely ignored.

To be sure, the Sept. 28 event wasn’t universally embraced by conservative theologians.

Richard Cizik, then-lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals until he was ousted after tangling with Dobson over gay marriage, said of the protest, “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.”

Catholic Archbishop John Favalora of Miami was more direct in a church newsletter writing: “The role of the church is not to be like the ‘party boss’ who goes around telling people how to vote.”

As we noted in our report, Ambulance Chasing for Jesus, posted days before the pastors wielded their homiliy-inspired political cudgels, the ADF Web site displayed a disclaimer that as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization it does not endorse or oppose political candidates.

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