Following threats made to pastors in Iowa that sermons on political issues would lead to prison, a Christian legal group has renewed its assurance that pastors have the legal right to speak out on moral and political topics during the 2008 primaries without jeopardizing their churches' tax-exempt status.
Some pastors in Iowa had received anonymous letters saying they should not preach on religious or political issues because they might land in the "slammer," reported Liberty Counsel.
But the Fla.-based group called the threats "baseless," noting that such attacks and attempts to silence pastors only point to the increasing role pastors play in politics.
In Iowa, Republican presidential contender Gov. Mike Huckabee's win was credited to a religious base of Christian conservatives.
Liberty Counsel said that while pastors cannot tell their congregations how to vote, they can preach on biblical and moral issues – such as traditional marriage and abortion, encouraging congregants to register and vote, presenting an overview of candidate positions, and personally endorsing candidates.
"Pastors should throw away the muzzles that some wish to impose on them and replace them with megaphones," asserted Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, in a statement. "It was sermons of pastors that fueled the American Revolution."
Churches can also legally participate in activities related to the elections as long as they also withhold endorsements on candidates. They may distribute nonpartisan voter guides, register voters, provide transportation to the polls, hold candidate forums, and introduce visiting candidates.
In fact, several churches have been lending their pulpits to candidates, who have taken a cue from Huckabee's victory in Iowa and the Bush election on the importance of mobilizing evangelical voters.
Rudy Giuliani read a Biblical verse and asked for prayers on Sunday from a 10,000-member Latino church while Huckabee preached in front of a megachurch in South Carolina. Both avoided discussing politics.
The American public, meanwhile, supports churches speaking out on political issues. A 2006 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 51 percent of Americans say houses of worship should express opinions about political issues, and 46 percent say they should not. According to the Forum, these statistics have kept steady in the past 60 years.
Opinions regarding religion and politics change dramatically when compared with those of young non-Christians, according to a survey last September. The Barna Group study found that 75 percent of non-Christians, ages 16-29, thought present-day Christianity was too involved in politics.
Many conservative Christian groups, however, have defended the constitutional right of pastors to speak on social and moral issues that are relevant in the elections.
Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Alliance Defense Fund, Concerned Women for America and the James Madison Center for Free Speech issued last October a letter to pastors nationwide of their right to free speech without fear of losing their church's tax-exempt status.
Not one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status since 1934, when the lobbying restriction was added by the Internal Revenue Code. Since 1954, when the political endorsement/opposition prohibition was added, only one church lost its IRS letter ruling but not its tax-exempt status when it sponsored newspaper ads opposing then-Gov. Bill Clinton for President.
"America needs her pastors to once again speak up and address the religious and moral issues of the day," added Staver. "It is far more likely to be struck by lightening twice than for churches to lose their tax-exempt status over political issues."