The Freedom From Religion Foundation is at it again.
Never content with the free exercise of religion, or other exercises of the First Amendment by people of faith, they have again stepped up to the plate with a new lawsuit determined to limit the First Amendment and further deny pastors and clergy the right to express their First Amendment rights.
First, the lawsuit cites Billy Graham for his full-page ads in newspapers before the election. The offending ad?
“The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren, and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this could be my last,” he said. “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6th, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.”
This same lawsuit also cites Catholic Bishop Jenky of Illinois, who send a letter who instructed the priests in his diocese to read a letter prior to the election. This letter stated :
“This assault upon our religious freedom is simply without precedent in the American political and legal system,” Bishop Jenky wrote. “Today, Catholic politicians, bureaucrats and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord. They are objectively guilty of grave sin.”
While the FFRF might get its undies in a bunch over religious figures warning followers about one of our first freedoms…the right to life, it does not run afoul of the restrictions on political speech placed upon them by the Section 501(c)(3).
All IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, must abide by certain rules:
…they must not participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office,…
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches and religious organizations, are absolutely prohibited 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not constitute prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that: (a)would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c)have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.
This isn’t rocket science. The restriction is plainly stated. Neither of these statements named names. They discussed the issue, which they are not prohibited from doing, neither by the statement set forth in the IRS’s own publication on the matter, or by the handful of cases that the IRS has prosecuted since LBJ got his grudge restriction through Congress. That said, the FFRF insists that the IRS is not doing its duty enforcing the 501(c)(3) restriction against “electioneering” by churches. It states that not enforcing it is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment and a violation of equal protection rights because the same preferential treatment is not provided to other tax-exempt organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
While it is true that other tax exempt organizations don’t enjoy this freedom, they also don’t have the same history. And there is one other key distinction, recognized by the IRS in its guidance on this matter: Churches are automatically exempt. They do not have to apply for this exemption in order to get it.
This raises a question that has yet to be addressed in litigation “How can the IRS take away a status that does not have to be applied for by the entity to begin with?”
That said, the usual suspects will no doubt get themselves worked into a froth on the matter, with much table banging, and outrage that a certain group may enjoy this privilege, without a thought to what was painfully obvious to those who established this exemption in the first place: The power to tax is the power to destroy. And if the state were ever granted this power, then even the correct interpretation of “separation of church and state” would be forever destroyed, as the government would be free to levy any cost it saw fit on religious belief. The government could exercise de facto control on the belief and conscience of those who are its masters. This is already being attempted with the HHS mandate, which seeks to impose government’s will on religious organizations, regardless of the fact that it directly contradicts the tenets of those organizations. But the other reason for this exemption is that the people who enacted it understood that government had its separate sphere of authority, and that the church had the other. The church was not to have the power of enforcement; this power belonged to the state. The church did have the moral authority, which served as the philosophical basis and morality that the law was to be centered on.
As the holder of that authority, the church had not just the right, but the duty to speak out when moral precepts were being flouted, or ignored. Rebuking the state’s authority when it was being abused, or misapplied was part and parcel of maintaining a healthy society and a limited government. This held true until LBJ got section 501(c)(3) passed. While this arguably assisted the state in expanding its own sphere of authority until it overlapped with others, it does not vitiate what the church should still be doing, or its freedom to do so. And that is why, although a part of me would enjoy seeing this lawsuit dismissed with prejudice, and Rule 11 sanctions being brought against FFRF, I would also like to see the merits, which do not favor the FFRF’s position, argued in the forum of the courts. For if the First Amendment is to mean anything, it has to preserve the freedom of religion, and the right of moral authorities to speak plainly on moral issues at times when we as Americans are selecting our leaders. To do less would be a rejection of this right, and the beginning of the end for individual conscience and belief.