Pastors who endorse from the pulpit face few consequences
On Sunday, more than 500 conservative Christian pastors around the country vowed to break the law by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. Though the practice has been illegal since 1954, endorsing churches have faced almost no consequences for their actions because the IRS has been hamstrung by “complex” rules.
As Minnesota Pastor Brad Brandon noted on his radio program last Friday, since his October 2010 endorsements of a slate of Republican candidates including U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, he hasn’t received a thing.
“You’d have to be living under rock if you didn’t know back in October of 2010, I chose to endorse candidates from behind my pulpit,” Brandon said. “Everywhere I go people ask me, ‘What happened?’”
“Are you ready for what happened? I’m going to explain to you what happened.” Brandon played a few seconds dead radio air. “That’s exactly what happened. Nothing happened.”
“So far the IRS has done absolutely nothing. What does that prove? That this is nothing more than an intimidation factor by the goverment to try to control the pulpit, to control the church.”
He added, “They know that if this were ever to go to the Supreme Court it would be shot down.”
Our sister site, The Minnesota Independent, first reported on Brandon’s endorsements in 2010 and that reporting generated a complaint to the IRS by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
As Brandon notes, the complaint appears to have gone nowhere.
Rob Boston of Americans United told the Minnesota Independent that the reason why the IRS hasn’t been effectively enforcing the law is “complex.”
“A few years ago, the IRS moved to audit a church in Minnesota that had endorsed Michele Bachmann,” he said. “The church sued, claiming that the IRS had not followed its own procedures for auditing churches. The church won the case when a federal court ruled that the IRS official who approved the audit was not of sufficient rank.”
The Independent’s reporting on Pastor Mac Hammond’s endorsement of Bachmann, as well as a financial set-up within the church that came under heavy scrutiny, generated that IRS investigation back in 2007. The IRS lost its case because the law limits how the agency can investigate churches and it had not followed its own rules.
“Subsequently, the IRS announced that it would revise its policies for church audits,” Boston said. “As far as we know, this process is ongoing. So, if there has been a pause in enforcement, it’s just that – a temporary pause.”
Even if the IRS isn’t currently going after churches that break tax laws, it still advises churches not to break the law.
“The IRS website continues to contain material warning churches (and other non-profits) against partisan politicking, and no change in policy has been announced,” Boston said.
Other churches continue to break the law every year and skate by with little to no consequences. Warroad Christian Church in northern Minnesota has been endorsing Republicans over the last few years.
The IRS dropped its investigation of that church after the Hammond court decision.
The church decided to endorse again this year as part of a broader movement called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal group, encourages churches to endorse from the pulpit each October. This year the movement picked up 539 churches around the country.
In Minnesota, five churches participated in Pulpit Sunday. Aside from Warroad, Faith Baptist Church in Brainerd, Hill City Baptist in Hill City, Landmark Baptist Church in Red Wing and South Troy Wesleyan Church in Zumbro Falls also announced they were endorsing candidates.