No Word From I.R.S. on Protest by Pastors
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Nearly seven months after defying a prohibition on endorsing candidates from the pulpit, 33 churches across the country are still waiting to learn whether the Internal Revenue Service will take action against them.
The goal of a Sept. 28 event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday was to start a legal fight and ultimately overturn regulations that prevent places of worship from supporting or opposing candidates for office. But a conservative legal group that organized the effort says the agency has yet to notify the churches of any investigation.
Legal experts suggest a number of possibilities: The I.R.S. has nothing to gain from a costly and mainly symbolic battle, it has limited resources or it could still be deciding how to respond.
On Sept. 28, participating pastors urged worshipers to vote according to conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage. Several endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain.
Under the agency’s code, places of worship can distribute voter guides, run nonpartisan voter-registration drives and hold forums on issues, among other things. But they cannot endorse a candidate, nor can their political activity be for or against a candidate.
Churches that violate the rule can lose their tax-exempt status.
The protest was organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, based in Phoenix, and involved pastors in 22 states.
“The wheels of bureaucracy move slowly,” said Erik Stanley, the group’s senior legal counsel. “We’re prepared if they do come after these churches, and we’re also prepared if they do not.”
An I.R.S. spokesman, Christopher Miller, declined to comment. At the time of the protest, the agency said it would “monitor the situation and take action as appropriate.”
Officials with the Alliance Defense Fund view the regulation as a violation of the pastors’ right to free speech. Some legal scholars counter that the government has the right to treat political and nonpolitical speech differently.
A number of the pastors said they hoped the I.R.S. would respond immediately so the legal challenge could get under way.
One of them, Luke Emrich, pastor at New Life Church in West Bend, Wis., had urged about 100 congregants to support an anti-abortion platform by voting for Mr. McCain. Mr. Emrich said he was disappointed the tax agency had not responded.
“It would have been nice to have a direct conversation with the I.R.S.,” he said. “I thought they would at least contact us, talk to us about the issues.”
Mr. Stanley said the organization would continue its protests, holding Pulpit Freedom Sundays every year ahead of federal, state or local elections.