In a move cheered by conservatives, the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that ministers and pastors do not risk losing their tax-exempt status for engaging in political acts on behalf of issues such as traditional-values advocacy.
The IRS said in a letter to the Niemoller Foundation that the Houston-based nonprofit organization did not violate its tax-exempt status when it brought together pastors and politicians to champion moral issues during Republican Gov. Rick Perry's 2006 re-election campaign.
Short of endorsing a particular candidate or spending substantial portions of their nonprofit budgets on legislative lobbying, ministers and their churches are free to engage in political acts on behalf of moral values, the IRS said. Clergy are also free to encourage their congregations' members to get out the vote based on those issues and values.
The long-awaited IRS decision benefits Republicans, since religious conservatives constitute a large and influential bloc in the party's electoral coalition.
"It's sort of ironical that it would be the Obama administration that would reach this conclusion, but I must say it would be a stretch to reach any other conclusion," said David Norcross, a lawyer and a member of the Republican National Committee.
The liberal Texas Freedom Network filed a complaint with the IRS saying a 2006 Niemoller-sponsored event encouraged pastors and congregations to get out the vote as well as to mount efforts on behalf of Mr. Perry's campaign.
The IRS decision, conveyed only to the Niemoller Foundation, also applied to Niemoller-sponsored gatherings in Texas and Florida to support state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
Liberal groups cautioned against interpreting the decision as a political carte blanche for churches and clergy on the right.
"Regardless, this ruling is disappointing because it will embolden wealthy special interests who want to funnel money into nonprofits as a backdoor way to drag churches into partisan campaigns," said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network. "We continue to think that using faith as a political weapon is sleazy, regardless of whether the IRS agrees that Niemoller violated its tax-exempt status."
Mr. Quinn said the Free Market Foundation - the parent organization of the Liberty Legal Institute - "got $100,000 from the Niemoller Foundation in 2005 for its help in organizing the 'Pastors' Policy Briefings' at the heart of our IRS complaint against Niemoller. I think that's important to note."
Many political analysts in both parties have maintained that but for the active support of Christian ministers who spoke out for the same moral values that the Republican presidential candidate espoused, George W. Bush would not have won Ohio and, therefore, would not have been re-elected in 2004.
Mr. Quinn's group's argued to the IRS that the Niemoller Foundation was out of bounds because it "encouraged pastors at the gatherings to mount voter-registration drives and turn congregants out at the polls."
Evangelicals hailed the IRS decision as a major victory.
"It's more than just a win because, thanks to the IRS letter, pastors now know they have the freedom to act as we always believed they had," said Kelly J. Shackelford, an attorney who represents Niemoller.
"It's the liberals' nightmare - they accidentally caused the IRS to put it in writing," said Mr. Shackelford, who is chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute, a First Amendment and religious-liberties group headquartered in Plano, Texas.
Mr. Shackelford said the foundation retained the Liberty Legal Institute, which then gathered a team of legal experts to defend the foundation. In an unusual move, Liberty Legal attorneys not only sought a win, but also an IRS guidance letter making clear such pastors' events are approved and valid. The IRS letter approving the events is just what they hoped for.
Lutheran pastor Lawrence White, director of the Niemoller Foundation, said: "The IRS has unequivocally affirmed the right of pastors nationwide to come together as spokesmen for the Word of God, to interact with political leaders, historians and scholars in discussing the moral issues under debate within our culture, to assert their Biblical responsibility, to address such issues from their pulpits."
The IRS ruling is expected to help Mr. Perry in his expected primary face-off with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison next year. Conservatives, who generally speak highly of Mr. Perry, nonetheless are carefully eyeing both Mr. Perry and Mrs. Hutchison, and religious voters probably will be the bloc that tips the primary toward one or the other.