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Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008

CHICAGO -- Declaring that clergy have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, the socially conservative Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors to do just that on Sept. 28, in defiance of Internal Revenue Service rules.

The effort by the Arizona-based legal consortium is designed to trigger an IRS investigation that ADF lawyers would then challenge in federal court. The ultimate goal is to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.

"For so long, there has been this cloud of intimidation over the church," ADF attorney Erik Stanley said. "It is the job of the pastors of America to debate the proper role of church in society. It's not for the government to mandate the role of church in society."

Yet an opposing collection of Christian and Jewish clergy will petition the IRS today to stop the protest before it starts, calling the ADF's "Pulpit Initiative" an assault on the rule of law and the separation of church and state.

Backed by three former top IRS officials, the group also wants the IRS to determine whether the nonprofit ADF is risking its own tax-exempt status by organizing an "inappropriate, unethical and illegal" series of political endorsements.

"As religious leaders, we have grave concerns about the ethical implications of soliciting and organizing churches to violate core principles of our society," the clergy wrote in an advance copy of their claim obtained by The Washington Post.

The battle over the clergy's privileges, rights and responsibilities in the political world is not new. Politicians of all stripes court the support -- explicit or otherwise -- of religious leaders. Allegations surface every political season of a preacher crossing the line.

What is different is the Alliance Defense Fund's direct challenge to the rules that govern tax-exempt organizations. Rather than wait for the IRS to investigate an alleged violation, the organization intends to create dozens of violations and take the U.S. government to court on First Amendment grounds.

"We're looking for churches that are serious-minded about this, churches that understand both the risks and the benefits," Stanley said, referring to the chance that they could lose their coveted tax-exempt status or could set a precedent.

Stanley said three dozen church leaders from more than 20 states have agreed to deliver a political sermon, naming political names.

"The sermon will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine. They will make a specific recommendation from the pulpit about how the congregation would vote," he said.

"They could oppose a candidate. They could oppose both candidates. They could endorse a candidate. They could focus on a federal, state or local election."


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