The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released a guide for religious bodies regarding the extent to which politics can be propagated from the pulpit.
Entitled "Preaching Politics From the Pulpit" and released on Tuesday, it is the third guide on the topic that Pew has released. The previous editions were released in 2004 and 2008.
"The guide sets out in plain English the rules governing political activity that apply to nonprofit organizations (including churches and other religious groups) that are exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code," reads a description of the guide at Pew's website.
"The original report was written by Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a leading expert on the taxation of religious organizations. The latest edition of the guide has been vetted by a number of other prominent legal experts in this field."
The release of the guide comes less than a week before the nationwide event "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," which is organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom. Slated for Oct. 7, the event will involve pastors from across the country speaking from the pulpit about political candidates and leaders in opposition to the IRS rules forbidding tax-exempt religious organizations from doing so.
The controversy goes back to the Johnson Amendment, which Congress passed in 1954. The amendment states that tax-exempt entities cannot "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office."
"The First Amendment prohibits the government from enacting laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. A pastor preaching a sermon from the pulpit is one of the core activities of the free exercise of religion," wrote Erik Stanley of ADF on a blog.
"Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a head-on constitutional challenge to the Johnson Amendment, which is blatantly unconstitutional. This unjust law, which never should have been applied to churches and pastors, has had a devastating effect on their constitutionally protected rights."
One organization that has been critical of the ADF's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" event is the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Steven Baines, Americans United's Assistant Field Director for Religious Outreach, told The Christian Post that he felt the Pew Forum's guide was a "somewhat more user-friendly" version of what is available on the IRS' website.
"I might quibble with some of the language, but in the main it's straight-forward and clear and I suspect many pastors will find it useful," said Baines.
"Having said that, I should also point out that the IRS has entire section of its website devoted to helping pastors understand this area of law, and some pastors might be more comfortable going directly to that authoritative source."
Baines, himself a pastor in the Disciples of Christ denomination, told CP that he took issue with "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" not just on a legal issue, but moral as well.
"Thousands of secular organizations that are also tax exempt have no trouble abiding by this rule; I see no reason why the church cannot as well. Any pastor who feels differently is free to give up tax exemption," said Baines.
"As a religious leader, it's my job to bridge divides and bring people together so that we might join in joyful worship of the God we are privileged to serve. Blasting partisan politics from the pulpit lays waste to that spirit. Even if it were legal, it would still be the wrong thing to do."
Regarding the issue of how lawful the IRS rules regarding tax-exempt religious organizations and political statements are, the Pew Forum stands neutral on the matter.
"The Pew Forum takes no position in this or any other policy debate," reads the statement about the guide after discussing the opposing viewpoints.
"The Pew Forum commissioned this publication solely to better inform religious groups and others on the provisions and meaning of the law as it is currently written."
The Alliance Defending Freedom did not return comment to The Christian Post by press time.