Saturday, March 11, 2006

The IRS wants to strike the fear of God into priests, ministers and rabbis who venture too far into politics and activism. In a Feb. 24 speech to the City Club of Cleveland, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson announced that nearly three-quarters of the 82 churches and charities that the IRS investigated recently for alleged political and electoral improprieties turned out, in the IRS’ view, to be violators. Among the “offenses”: Allowing candidates to speak on church premises, preachers delivering remarks from the pulpit interpreted to endorse candidates and the posting of Web links to the Web sites of candidates for office.

Interest is boiling over in Ohio: There, two ministers are accused of getting too close to Ken Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate, as well as letting their preaching get too political (the reverends deny the charges). At issue is whether the IRS should more actively sanction or even revoke the tax-exempt status of churches and charities it believes have gone too far. The IRS has done this before: In 1995 the Clinton IRS revoked tax exemptions for a Binghamton, N.Y.-area church that paid for anti-Clinton advertisements in a local newspaper.

The IRS should tread lightly. The 501(c)3 section of the tax code is deliberately vague about what is acceptable and what is not. Mr. Everson himself agrees. In his Feb. 24 speech, he said: “There are few bright lines for evaluating political intervention; our work requires a careful balancing of all the facts and circumstances.” The reality is even murkier than Mr. Everson suggests. One tax-code passage prohibits any activity “that may be beneficial or detrimental to any particular candidate.” Who knows what an overzealous regulator could do with that language. Urging congregants to vote pro-life is obviously more “beneficial” than not to the typical Republican candidate; urging a pro-choice stance does the reverse.

Equally obvious, clergymen and women should be allowed wide latitude to invite speakers to their houses of worship. They should have great discretion to say what their consciences compel them to in the pulpit. This is a lesson the IRS should take to heart. Far better to stick to the traditional hands-off interpretation.

In November, there emerged clear signs that the IRS is considering doing more. The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., discovered he was the target of IRS ire for a fiery sermon he delivered before the 2004 president election which implied endorsement of John Kerry. The sermon, titled “If Jesus debated Sen. Kerry and President Bush,” provoked an IRS threat against the church’s tax-exempt status. This was an egregious case of sermon-policing. Worse, it apparently only happened because the Los Angeles Times covered the story.

Short of “Vote Kerry” or “God hates Republicans,” what the Rev. Bacon says from the pulpit is a matter for the reverend and the All Saints’ congregation.

As the Pasadena case shows, this is not a liberal or conservative issue; it affects any clergy who discuss the big issues of the day with congregants. We don’t consider churches’ tax exemptions a birthright; clearly that status comes with the responsibilities to steer clear of electioneering, and in any event the Supreme Court has affirmed this in its rulings. But the IRS should not attempt to unduly chill political speech by clergy of any stripe.

“We can’t afford to have our charitable and religious institutions undermined by politics,” Mr. Everson said in his Cleveland speech. But neither can we allow government bureaucracy to do the same by imposing undue restrictions on speech.

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