COLUMBUS, Ohio A group of ministers filed a complaint today with the Internal Revenue Service to stop a conservative organization from encouraging pastors to endorse or oppose political candidates.
The group of 55 religious leaders from Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and other states said the actions by the Alliance Defense Fund jeopardize the separation of church and state.
“The rightful place of religious leaders and communities of faith in American life is not in electoral politics,” said the Rev. Eric Williams, a minister with the liberal United Church of Christ.
The Phoenix-based conservative group has enlisted ministers around the country to invite investigations by the IRS by giving political sermons on Sept. 28, a day the group has dubbed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” It says it will represent any churches targeted by the IRS in lawsuits against the government.
“Pastors have a right to speak about biblical truths from the pulpit without any fear of punishment,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, said today. “They shouldn’t be intimidated into giving up those constitutional rights.”
The defense fund says it’s looking for a lawsuit to challenge a 1954 IRS restriction that led to the prohibition against pastors endorsing candidates at the risk of losing their churches’ tax-exempt status.
A message seeking comment was left today at the IRS.
The nonprofit Alliance Defense Fund has about 40 staff attorneys and about 1,200 volunteer lawyers around the country who handle the group’s lawsuits pro bono.
Lawsuits filed by the group include challenges of California’s gay marriage law, supporting the right of an Illinois student to wear an anti-gay T-shirt, and in defense of allowing a portrait of Jesus in a Louisiana courthouse.
Three former IRS officials, including Mortimer Caplin, the IRS commissioner under President Kennedy who is still a practicing tax attorney, also asked the IRS today to investigate the Alliance Defense Fund’s initiative.
Marcus Owens, a former director of the IRS exempt organizations division, questioned the ethics of lawyers encouraging ministers to break the law.
“It is the role of attorneys to assist their clients in understanding the law,” Owens said. “It is not at all clear, under any set of ethical rules applicable to members of the bar, that one can actively aid, assist and encourage a violation of the law.”
According to defense fund’s promotional materials about its initiative, “Each pastor will prepare the sermon with the legal assistance of the ADF to ensure maximum effectiveness in challenging the IRS.”
Stanley said that information is being misinterpreted.
“What we’re doing here is working within the framework of American law that allows for these types of civil rights challenges, and allows an individual who believes their constitutional rights are violated to have their day in court,” he said.
The complaint Williams’ group filed today asks the IRS to stop the Alliance Defense Fund from signing up churches to violate the federal restriction.
The group also wants the IRS to investigate whether the Pulpit Initiative is itself illegal, putting the defense fund’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy. And it wants the IRS to investigate the tax consequences for individuals or groups who may have donated money to the defense fund.
Many of the ministers signing the complaint against the ADF are members of the liberal United Church of Christ.
The IRS investigated the denomination earlier this year over allegations it violated IRS rules when it hosted Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at its convention in Hartford, Conn., in 2007. The tax agency ultimately found no violations had occurred.