Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

In an attempt to blur the lines between church and state, 33 churches participated in a nationwide event called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in September 2008, prior to the historic November election. The goal of this event was to trigger a legal fight and ultimately overturn regulations that prevent places of worship from supporting or opposing candidates for office.

Participating pastors urged worshippers to vote according to conservative views on abortion and gay marriage. Several endorsed Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Nearly seven months after violating the legal and political principal of the separation of church and state, the participating churches are still waiting to learn whether the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will take action against them.

Any political endorsements made by places of worship are prohibited by a 1954 amendment to the Internal Revenue Code. This amendment states that non-profit, tax-exempt entities may not “participate in, or intervene in … any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.” Under the IRS code, places of worship can, however, distribute voter guides, run non-partisan voter registration drives and hold forums on multiple political issues. But places of worship cannot endorse a candidate, nor can their political activity be biased for or against a political candidate. As stated in the IRS code, churches that violate this rule will lose their tax-exempt status.

The “Pulpit” protest was organized by the Phoenix-based, socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund, which stated that the clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from its pulpits. Unlike previous churches that violated the IRS code, the Alliance Defense Fund participated in numerous violations in hopes of attracting the attention of the IRS.

Unfortunately, to date, the IRS has been unwilling to respond to the violations made by the 33 churches and the Alliance Defense Fund. Historically, the IRS has been quite slow when it comes to investigating churches that have violated tax code. However, in recent years, the IRS has stepped up oversight after receiving more complaints than usual beginning with the presidential election in 2004.

Despite the IRS slightly increasing its investigations of churches over the years, the fact that the IRS has not taken away the participating churches’ tax exempt status shows that the IRS does not have any incentive to pursue this issue. Unfortunately, as a result, the principle established by the founding fathers enumerating the importance of the separation of church and state is negatively affected.

If the IRS does not take action against the Alliance Defense Fund and the participating churches, the organization will continue its protests and violations by holding yearly Pulpit Freedom Sundays during federal, state and local elections. In addition, if the IRS refuses to act, the pastors and the organization will learn and believe that the National IRS Tax Code can be safely ignored, and thus, in a blink of an eye, the idea of separation of church and state will no longer be maintained.

The logic behind the concept of the separation of church and state is flawless and we owe a debt of gratitude to the forward-thinking founders of this country. With the diversity that is inherent in a pluralistic society, including a multitude of Christian sects as well as representation of every faith on the planet, including those with no beliefs at all, the only conceivable way to ensure that no amount of favoritism is shown through legislation to any one belief in preference to any other is to create an environment in which all religious beliefs compete with each other on a level playing field.

The absence of religion in politics and politics in religion creates both secular government and deeper spirituality. In order to maintain religious freedom, which is the core of our democracy, government and religious entities must not intersect. The U.S. government’s primary job is to address the concerns and needs that affect everyone, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

A recent national poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that two-thirds of adults oppose political endorsements from churches and other places of worship and another 52 percent wanted religious institutions out of politics. If these numbers tell us anything, it is the fact that people agree with the idea of separation of church and state, and greatly oppose any interaction between politics and religion.

It is important to understand that when a person becomes a minister, rabbi, priest or other religious leader, he or she does not lose the capacity to participate in partisan political activities. However, any activity in support of or in opposition to candidates for public office must be done in a manner that does not indicate or imply that the religious figure is bringing the weight of the institution behind him. It also means that the church leader cannot use the resources of the church to promote his personal partisan views.

In the end, though the views of separation of church and state have and will continue to be challenged, it is important to keep the two branches separated. Religion is meant to inspire faith and hope in people, not promote political ideology. If the IRS continues to ignore this growing problem and the violation of one of the core pillars and foundations of our democracy, there will be no consequences for religious leaders who plan to use the church as a platform for promoting their political propaganda, which will in turn crumble the wall of separation between church and state.

Natalie Goudarzian is a third-year international studies major. She can be reached at