IRS Affirms Right of Pastors to Engage in Some Political Activities

A Houston-based non-profit foundation that funded a series of pastors conferences in 2006 ahead of Gov. Rick Perry's re-election did not violate any tax laws and can thus keep its tax-exempt status, the Internal Revenue Service recently ruled.

"This liberal attempt to intimidate pastors has backfired," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute which represented organizers of the conferences, in a statement Tuesday. "There is now a clear IRS statement outlining these pastors' events and approving them as valid under the law."

The Texas Freedom Network, which monitors "far-right" issues and groups, had asked the IRS to investigate the Niemoller Foundation and its Texas Restoration Project conferences which drew thousands of pastors and featured Perry as a speaker.

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The network alleges that the foundation violated their tax-exempt status by intervening in political activity, using exempt funds to get churches to assist in the re-election campaign of Perry, and encouraging pastors to "mount voter registration drives and turn congregants out at the polls."

In a letter sent to the Niemoller Foundation earlier this month, the IRS determined after its review that there was no solicitation for a vote by the speakers and that the speeches "did not appear to be political intervention." The IRS found no evidence of candidate endorsement, which is forbidden for tax-exempt organizations. Attendees at the conference were just told to "vote their values."

The foundation was reviewed for possible engaging in political activities, and because of the speeches of politicians at the conferences and the messages promoted concerning same-sex marriages and other similar issues.

According to Liberty Legal Institute, pastors at the conferences were called to stand up for moral issues and to encourage their congregants to get involved in the political process.

Laurence White, director of the Niemoller Foundation and a Lutheran pastor, commented, "We educate churches on moral issues facing our society and encourage them to participate in the democratic process."

"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 and to assert their Biblical responsibility to address such issues from their pulpits," White added, according to Liberty Legal Institute.

Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network told CBN News that the IRS' decision will "pretty much embolden wealthy special interests who see funneling money into non-profits like this as a back doorway to drag houses of worships into partisan political campaigns."

"And we think it's sleazy to use faith as a political weapon."

The Liberty Legal Institute, meanwhile, cautions that liberal groups are engaged in a national campaign filing IRS complaints against pastors.

"They sound very confident and file many complaints yet none are found valid even by the IRS," said Shackelford.

Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal firm, also says the Texas case reveals attempts by "radical groups bent on squelching any church involvement in societal affairs" to use the IRS as an advocacy tool.

"While the outcome of this case was good, the history of the case and the IRS' investigation demonstrate that the tax code must be changed to prohibit these attacks on churches," Stanley told The Christian Post, noting that the IRS continues to issue increasingly vague guidance.

The ADF staunchly supports pastors speaking freely from their pulpits on social and political issues without being threatened of losing their tax-exempt status. In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, the ADF organized "Freedom in the Pulpit Sunday" last September where 33 pastors from 22 states talked politics and endorsed political candidates – a direct challenge to IRS rules for non-profit religious organizations.

According to Stanley, none of the pastors have heard from the IRS based on their sermons that day.

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