In the News: Partisan Preachers

From the Boston Globe on Oct 27, a terrific piece describing the problem of the pulpit being used to preach not Jesus, but politics, What I am curious is whether he IRS will enforce its rules across he board, or only when the enemies of a current administration cross the line, as in this article. If so, we will have gone all the way toweard politicizing religion, something I am sure would set the Founding Fathers spinning in their graves.

Clergy warned on partisan preaching
Several faiths act to keep tax status

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff | October 27, 2006

In the face of increased federal scrutiny of politics in the pulpit, religious denominations are warning clergy against overtly partisan preaching.

As Election Day approaches, with the Massachusetts governorship and both houses of Congress up for grabs, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has sent a memo to all priests instructing them not to provide parish directories to political candidates, not to allow the distribution of campaign literature on church property, and not to express support or opposition for political candidates.

The memo warns explicitly that the tax-exempt status of the Archdiocese of Boston could be at risk if those rules are violated.

The Reform Jewish movement, the largest Jewish denomination in the country, took a similar step last week, holding a conference call with more than 200 rabbis and synagogue administrators around the country to offer guidance about how to preach on politics without running afoul of the nation's tax code.

And the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is headquartered in Boston, is revamping an Internet page that guides clergy about political preaching in light of new IRS guidelines for churches.

The increased concern among religious denominations has been triggered by a highly publicized IRS investigation into All Saints Church, an Episcopal parish in Pasadena, Calif., where a preacher in 2004 mused aloud, in a sermon, about a hypothetical debate between Jesus and the two major-party candidates for president, President George W. Bush and US Senator John F. Kerry. The church is now refusing to comply with a summons for a copy of all written and oral communications identifying candidates for public office in 2004; the IRS, which issued the summons, is investigating whether the sermon, in which the preacher imagined Jesus criticizing the war in Iraq, constituted illegal advocacy for the Kerry campaign.

"Religious people on all sides of the political spectrum are speaking out more, and as the nation has become more partisan, and the level of public discourse has become more politicized and negative, that has brought us to this point, and has brought more scrutiny from the IRS," said Rob Keithan , director of the Washington office of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is known for liberal politics. "The All Saints case did have a big impact -- it gave us all occasion to talk about whether we have our own houses in order."

Political campaign activity by churches and other nonprofits was barred by Congress in 1954, but enforcement activity has intensified dramatically in the last two years, as liberals accuse evangelical churches and conservatives accuse African-American churches of routinely violating the law. One website, ratoutachurch.org, solicits allegations about politicking in liberal congregations. The IRS said that it has completed 87 audits of churches and charities accused of violations during the 2004 election campaigns, and the violations were found in 71 percent of the cases.

The regulations bar churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, but permit discussion of issues. Clergy can endorse candidates as individuals; currently, in Massachusetts, the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Deval Patrick is circulating a letter to clergy, "to help them get involved with the campaign as individuals if they choose," according to campaign spokeswoman Libby DeVecchi.

The recent memo to Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston was similar to one sent to all Catholic priests in the state, according to Edward F. Saunders Jr. , the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, who said he thought it would be prudent for all four bishops to clarify the rules for priests.

"We had heard some priests were being approached to do things -- there were various voter guides floating around, and we wanted to make sure they knew the guidelines and that there were no problems," Saunders said. "It's the first statewide election in four years, and we felt it was a good idea to get the word out."

Harold Sparrow , the executive director of the Black Ministerial Alliance, said he has cautioned his membership not to endorse candidates from the pulpit since an IRS review of a comment by a Boston minister, the Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr. , pastor of the Charles Street AME Church, who in 2004 introduced Kerry as "the next president of the United States."

The Unitarian Universalist Association published guidelines for clergy during the 2004 election season but is now modifying them in response to new guidance from the IRS, and, like other denominations, expects to more aggressively publicize the rules in 2008, when political discussion is expected to intensify for the presidential campaign.

Numerous mainline Protestant denominations, including the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and the umbrella organization Lutheran Services in America, have posted guidelines on their websites in an effort to prevent problems with the federal agency.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this month reiterated its policy prohibiting endorsement or assistance of political candidates after a Globe story reported that operatives representing Governor Mitt Romney had met with a Mormon church elder about Romney's possible presidential campaign.

The increased attention to the role of religious organizations in politics has raised concerns that some preachers might be scared away from talking about politics.

"I am concerned that people's fears will cause them to be less forceful with their words," Keithan said. "Certainly, we don't want people to not speak out about their values."

Rabbi David Saperstein , a Reform Jewish official who hosted last week's conference call, said he, too, hopes that the discussion of an IRS crackdown will not mute the political outspokenness of clergy.

"It is clear that it is having a chilling impact, with people feeling constrained from doing things that are clearly legal, such as speaking out on the issues in a campaign or on a ballot," said Saperstein, who is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"People are being erroneously confronted by lay leaders who tell them, 'Oh, the IRS doesn't allow you to speak on issues,' and rather than trying to explain why they're wrong, sometimes it's just easier to back off. I don't think that's good for the strength of our democracy, or for religious freedom."

The IRS has been outspoken this year about its concern about violations; the issue is currently highlighted on the agency's Web page, irs.gov, and the agency's commissioner, Mark W. Everson , gave a major speech on the subject in February -- in the swing state of Ohio -- in which he declared, "at the IRS we have stepped up our efforts and are vigorously enforcing the law."

"We have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of money financing politics," he said. "Are we going to let these political activities spread to our charities and churches? Now is the time to act, before it is too late."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.