Pulpit Freedom Sunday blasted by group advocating separation of church and state

A national group that advocates for the separation of church and state is urging members of the evangelical clergy to reject the Alliance Defense Fund’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on Oct. 2.

“This is an appalling attempt by the Religious Right to turn houses of worship into houses of partisan politics,” said Rev. Berry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “Americans attend church for spiritual guidance, not to get a list of candidates to vote for on election day.”

The Alliance Defense Fund, a religiously motivated legal group which considers itself as a counter to the American Civil Liberties Union, is encouraging pastors throughout the nation to “freely speak to their congregations on political matters from a biblical perspective.” This year’s event is an extension and continuation of the group’s 2008 “Pulpit Initiative,” which challenged the Internal Revenue Service restrictions on pastors speaking about political candidates under threat of IRS investigation.

Colorado’s James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was one of the founders of the ADF.

Lynn contends that the ADF is encouraging pastors to break the law by endorsing or opposing certain political candidates as a part of religious ceremony.

“I know the Religious Right would like to forge fundamentalist churches into a partisan political machine,” Lynn said, “but the law doesn’t allow it, and the American people don’t want it.”

The group points to a recent study finding that 73 percent of Americans agree religious leaders should not intervene in elections, and they have pledged to report offending religious institutions to the IRS, the government agency that is charged with investigating and enforcing tax law provisions.

“Church electioneering is illegal, and the people don’t support it,” Lynn added. “It’s time for the Religious Right to stop trying to drag churches into backroom politics.”

In 2006, the IRS issued a report stating that it examined 132 non-profits during the 2004 election cycle. The tax agency noted that “fewer than half” of the entities examined were churches and concluded that in many of the case, significant violations of the law had occurred. Written warnings were issued in 55 cases.

In 2008, the IRS took the step of sending letters to officials in the national political parties, reminding them that houses of worship and other tax-exempt entities cannot endorse candidates.

The ADF doesn’t seem to be arguing that such political practices from the pulpit is legal, but that it should be legal. The group views the restrictions placed on church as a part of their tax-exempt status as an undue shackle, which they believe violates the constitutional right of free speech. The group notes that in the almost 60 years since Congress added the provision to the tax code “there has been no reported situation where a church has lost its tax-exempt status or has been directly punished for sermons delivered from the pulpit evaluating candidates for office in light of scripture.”

Appearing recently on Glenn Beck TV, Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church, who also serves as chairman of Renewing American Leadership, argued that “any pastor can say whatever he or she wants from the pulpit.”

During the original Pastor Initiative, according to Garlow, 33 pastors knowingly and purposefully violated federal law by issuing and recording political speech from their pulpits, and afterward provided those recordings to the IRS, which did not prosecute. The following year, a total of 84 pastors did the same — also without penalty. And the year after that 100 pastors did the same without penalty.

“This year,” Garlow said, “we expect close to 500 pastors to intentionally in their sermons defy the Johnson Amendment — they can speak whatever they want — and mail it to the IRS and the Alliance Defense Fund will defend [their right to do so].”

Below, video of Bishop Phillip Porter, Jr., or Aurora, CO, speaking in favor of Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Scot Kersgaard contributed to this article.