On Sunday, hundreds of preachers are expected to celebrate something called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” by sermonizing about the moral qualifications of candidates for public office. The event is organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization. The alliance is offering legal representation to clergy whose remarks might run afoul of the prohibition of politicking by churches. It’s a challenge the Internal Revenue Service should take seriously.
Under the law, not only churches but other so-called 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations must not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The restriction, which dates back to the 1950s, is based on a sound principle: that organizations characterizing themselves as charitable and receiving a government benefit should refrain from election activity.
For some religious conservatives, this policy isn’t just unwise; it’s unconstitutional. But tax exemption isn’t a constitutional right. It’s the creation of Congress, which has the right to attach conditions to that benefit. Put another way, churches may have a 1st Amendment right to comment on elections, but they don’t have the right to a tax exemption.