A Christian group advocating religious freedom is asking pastors across the nation to challenge federal law by speaking openly on political topics from the pulpit.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which is today, is part of the Pulpit Initiative sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund. It's meant to draw attention to the claim that the IRS tax code for 501(c)(3) nonprofits is an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment's religious liberty clause.

But legal experts, pastors and advocates of church-state separation say the group's claim is specious, since it implies that political speech is forbidden in church, which it isn't, and that tax-exempt status is a constitutional right, which it's not.

At least one local church pastor is participating in the initiative, which has been promoted by the Alliance Defense Fund since 2008. The Rev. Kevin Baird of Legacy Church in West Ashley said pastors should be able to "teach the Scriptures and apply them to issues without fear of the Johnson amendment."

Baird and the Alliance Defense Fund are citing an amendment added to the tax law by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, and approved by Congress in 1954, which limits some political speech by churches and charities.

"The IRS cannot be a content manager or regulator," Baird said. "There is a legitimate intimidation factor that comes from the IRS and the left to squelch conservative pastors."

In 1987, Congress strengthened the ban on partisan endorsement by amending the tax rule "to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates," according to the IRS.

The Alliance Defense Fund, an affiliation of Christian attorneys and organizations led by Alan Sears, is challenging the ban.

On the lookout

The watchdog group American United for Separation of Church and State has reported many abuses of the law to the authorities over the years, requesting an IRS investigation. The group is on the lookout for egregious examples of partisan politicking and has reported liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning churches in equal measure, said the Rev. Barry Lynn, its executive director, in a telephone interview.

When Michelle Obama campaigned for her husband in September 2008 before the North Carolina Baptist Convention, AU reported the incident.

When Jesse Jackson was running for president in the 1980s and attempted to raise money for his campaign in black churches one Sunday, he received a warning from AU.

"We wrote him a letter and he stopped," Lynn said.

Problems only arise when political campaigning and IRS tax law collide, Lynn said.

"Tax exemption, even for churches, is not a constitutional right," he said. "It is a privilege that comes with modest constraints." You can't endorse or oppose a candidate for public office, and you can't use politics to enrich yourself.

"Martin Luther King talked about moral issues every day, but he never endorsed a candidate," Lynn said.

Churches can hold discussions on politics, and host someone from a particular party so long as they invite someone from the opposing party, he said.

"All you have to do is invite," Lynn said. The candidate need not accept the invitation. "It's the effort to be balanced and not give the appearance of an endorsement that's important."

Furthermore, churches are not prohibited by the IRS from political activity such as voter drives or debates on the issues. They have a lot of leeway concerning political speech, Lynn said. Pulpit Freedom Sunday, therefore, is nothing more than a "publicity stunt," he said.

Baird said the threat to churches is real. Even tax-exempt organizations need a tax identification number to claim their exemption and to conduct various transactions. "Without it, practically, I can't access these things," he said. As Baird sees it, the Constitution already exempts churches from paying taxes, and the IRS rule only adds an unnecessary layer of complexity the government can use to strong-arm religious groups.

"You have, in my opinion, pastors who are provoked into timidity or fear," he said.

Prohibited

John Simpkins, a research fellow at the Charleston School of Law and a constitutional law expert, said the claim that the government is restricting freedom of religious expression in churches doesn't hold water.

Churches, he said, are free to discuss politics, and even endorse specific candidates if they want, but then they risk forfeiting their tax-exempt status. There are other options, however, such as forming a political action committee or registering as a 501(c)(4), which can promote social welfare and lobby for legislation, or a 527 organization, whose purpose is to exert influence in political campaigns.

These options still qualify the organization for certain, limited tax exemptions.

"There is no constitutional bar on political speech in the church," Simpkins said. "The problem occurs when the church is advocating political action, when the church is involved directly in a particular political contest. That's prohibited."

Unto Caesar

Marvin Wood, pastor of Tall Pines Baptist Church in Ladson, said his objection is not the restrictions imposed by the tax law, but the prospect of sending church money to the government.

Tax-exempt status, even with its strings attached, is a welcomed benefit, he said.

Wood, who is a vocal conservative evangelical and once was involved with the Moral Majority in support of Ronald Reagan's presidential run, noted that the Bible contains its own version of a separation of church and state clause in the books of Matthew and Luke: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's," he said.

Wood said politics often enters his church, and that he will tell his congregation, from the pulpit, who he plans to vote for, but asserts that his choice is a personal one and that others should "vote their conscience." Social issues such as abortion and gay marriage also are discussed, and, without naming names, Wood will admonish his congregation to vote for candidates who uphold Christian principles.

Lynn said this kind of talk nearly crosses the line, but the IRS, which is hamstrung by bureaucratic obstacles, tends to focus on churches whose actions and statements are explicitly partisan and promote one individual over another.

Wood said the tax law is not a good example of governmental overreaching.

"For me, if the law said this is what I can't do, if it doesn't hinder me from preaching the Gospel, I want to be lawful," Wood said. "If the 501(c)(3) gives me the advantage of tax exemption, I want to take advantage of that. We don't tithe to the Lord because of a government tax benefit, but we're not stupid."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.