A Christian legal group has launched a new effort aimed at protecting churches from excessive and unconstitutional government intrusion.
Launched Wednesday, Alliance Defense Fund's Church Project provides legal information to pastors and ministry leaders on how to defend their religious freedom in America as well as practical guidelines on issues such as public funding and hiring policies.
"Pastors and churches shouldn't live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government. That's exactly why the Constitution protects religious freedom," says ADF senior counsel Kevin Theriot, who heads the Church Project.
But these days, pastors and church leaders are being pressured to be silent on moral issues such as life, liberty, marriage and the family. Government officials from the local to federal level are "determined to muzzle" church leaders who proclaim the biblical views on these issues, ADF contends.
"These officials are encroaching as never before on the autonomy of churches and their leaders, to the point that pastors' ability to proclaim the full counsel of God's Word is endangered," the legal group asserts on the Church Project.
In recent years, churches have faced legal problems related to use of public facilities for worship services, zoning laws and land ordinances. But ADF says the "most intimidating intrusion" is the threat of IRS audits and loss of 501(c)(3) tax exemption for churches whose pastor speaks from a biblical standpoint about the positions of political candidates on moral issues.
Historians have largely credited America's independence to the "moral force of the pulpit," ADF points out.
"Pastors have proclaimed Scriptural truth throughout history on great moral issues such as slavery, women's suffrage, child labor and prostitution," notes the group on the website of another initiatve, the Pulpit Initiative. "Pastors have also spoken from the pulpit with great frequency for and against various candidates for government office."
ADF's Pulpit Initiative, launched in 2008, has been integrated into the Church Project as one of the broader efforts. One of the highlights of the initiative is the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday – a day when pastors across the country are urged to preach from the pulpit on the position of political candidates based on a biblical perspective. The act is done in defiance to the IRS rule that says nonprofits with tax-exempt status cannot endorse a candidate or be involved in political activity.
"The future of religious liberty in America hinges in large part on the outcomes of these legal issues … and on the willingness of all pastors and church leaders, whether or not they themselves are directly persecuted, to act, minister and speak up boldly for the God-given freedoms protected by our Constitution," states the group on the Church Project's website.
"Even erosions of religious liberty that seem small threaten the Church's ability to be the Church," adds Theriot.
Established in 1994, ADF is a national legal organization defending people of faith. The Christian legal group provides strategy, training, and funding in the legal battle for religious liberty, sanctity of life, and traditional family values.