An unlikely combination of political progressives and Evangelicals came together last week to demand more clarity in IRS regulations of political speech for churches and non-profits. “The vagueness of the [IRS] regulations” has put churches in “limbo,” argued Erik Stanley of Alliance Defending Freedom at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 28. “Take a pastor’s sermon from the pulpit — no pastor really understands what’s allowed and what’s not under the current IRS rules,” he explained to CNA. Consequently, many ministers avoid politics in their sermons altogether which results in a “self-censorship” of sorts, he said. So while the IRS can go after churches for unlawful political speech, “it just doesn’t have to,” he explained, adding that the rules enable “pervasive monitoring of sermons by the IRS,” which amounts to “the state intruding into the realm of the sovereignty of the church.” Stanley was part of a panel of Evangelicals and progressives all pushing for more clarity on IRS regulations, at the National Press Club on Jan. 28. Also on the panel were members of the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, the Center for American Progress and Public Citizen. The progressive groups argued that 501(c)(4)s and non-profits need clear oversight to reveal who their political donors are and establish a boundary of unlawful political action. The Evangelical organizations said that unclear regulations leave churches and nonprofit groups unsure of what they can and cannot do without fear of punishment. Current IRS regulations prohibit “churches and religious organizations” 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.” In addition, religious ministers cannot endorse or oppose a political candidate at official church functions, in official church publications, or “on behalf of the organization.” Any endorsement they make must be private and made outside of the church. But outside of direct endorsements or statements of opposition, the definition of unlawful political speech becomes murky for church leaders, to the point where many avoid politics altogether. The IRS is allowed to audit churches, but “they never finalized those procedures” by which they may do so, Stanley said. Thus, “we’re kind of left in this limbo where the law says you can’t do it, the IRS never enforces it, but then there are advocacy groups that come out and say you shouldn’t do it,” he continued, “and it’s just a big mess.” Future IRS regulations must not be vague or arbitrary, he insisted, but should instead allow pastors to “speak freely from the pulpit” about politics. “The bright line that we’re advocating for is let the pastors speak freely from the pulpit,” he said. “There should be no restrictions on what they can and cannot say from the pulpit.” With this in place, “there’s no added cost to the organizational benefit, it’s just done in the normal course of business as a part of their religious faith,” he explained. If attendees are taken aback by what is preached, “they vote with their feet, which happens all the time.”
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