IRS monitoring sermons?

So goes an item in the ‘conservative’ rumor-mill.  Right up there with Madalyn Murray O’Hair banning religious broadcasting.  G-men fanning-out across the country, Men in Black with earpieces, coiled wires, and fedoras, invading tax-exempt worshiping communities, eavesdropping on their preachers, ready to yank their tax exemption if they say anything “political.”

Unlikely.  How many worshiping communities are there in America – hundreds of thousands? millions even?

Some citizens’ groups might be, especially Americans United for Separation of Church and State… headed by a minister, btw.  But as long as churches allow strangers to visit….  (Time was when they didn’t, though… still remembered in every Orthodox Liturgy when the priest or deacon cries out, “The doors!  The doors!”  The ancient ministry of Porter didn’t used to be a “greeter” ala Walmart – and I appreciate greeters! – but more like a bouncer!!!)

This ‘conservative’ article has no reason to misstate the law, ISTM.  So preachers are allowed to say “political” things, they just can’t explicitly endorse or oppose specific candidates or parties for elective public office… IF they want their worshiping communities to retain their tax exemption.  Some preachers and communities forego tax exemption, and say whatever they wish.  Remember, tax exemption is not a right in America, it’s a privilege.  It doesn’t belong specifically to religious groups and organizations, but to all not-explicitly-political non-profits who register for it with the IRS… and most religious groups – sometimes incredibly – seem to qualify as non-profits, especially worshiping communities.

But I had a thought: Every non-profit as such is governed by a board of trustees or directors (except Catholic dioceses that are legally structured as [terminology varies from State to State] a “corporation sole,” where all civil legal authority is vested in the ruling hierarch or “ordinary” – the bishop, archbishop, or cardinal).  Therefore, legally and technically, statements by a minister, even if s/he is a member of that board, even chairperson of it, do not equate to statements by the congregation itself.  Often, especially in Protestant and Jewish congregations, the preacher is just an employee of the board or of the congregation as a whole.  In any case, for the non-profit as a whole to endorse or oppose a candidate or party would require a vote of the board or even the whole congregation.

I have to wonder if the preacher-as-organization principle is rooted in the Catholic diocese idea?  But there are numerous kinds of structures of religious organizations.  Even some officials called “bishop” are less powerful than others in different denominations, civilly and legally speaking.

Theologically, of course, ideally at least Christian worship is an action of the whole people, in Greek laos ergon, the origin of the word liturgy, a term for corporate worship in the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, and Lutheran churches, possibly others.  And theologically, the sermon or homily is fully a part of that, and theologically should be speech not just to but of the Church, even if delivered by only one member of it, even one who is not legally its president or chairman, but merely an employee.  And also in reality, of course, in much Protestant worship in America, the sermon is the center or climax of the worship service (a Catholic priest-liturgist once snidely called this model “lecture-as-worship.”  rrrREAR!).  HOWEVER, this level of theologizing would surely qualify as “excessive entanglement of the state in religious matters,” and so the IRS shouldn’t be permitted to take it into account!

Therefore, we must ask the IRS – or the federal courts – if statements by one member, chairman, president, or employee of a church, synagogue, temple, mosque, Meeting, etc. – except a Catholic bishop as discussed above – should really be considered an action of the whole non-profit corporation in favor of or against one or more candidates or political parties.

Realistically, of course, many people do in fact take what their preachers say as church statements, unless they’re clearly guest speakers, especially under an IRS-allowed candidates’ ‘equal time rule.’  And even then, if they say something controversial, the question arises in at least some members’ heads, Does the Church agree with this person or statement?  A sermon is not quite the same as a speech at the Shriners’ Convention, or a comedian’s stand-up act, or a soliloquy in a movie.  But again, should the IRS be engaging in this level of ‘theologizing,’ or would this be, under the law, “excessive entanglement in religion”???  If the IRS wouldn’t be so exacting concerning an address by an equivalent officer of the American Red Cross, the Lions’ Club, etc., why should it treat religious congregations differently than all other non-profits, singling them out like this?

Not that I want “Red Churches” to come out full-force in support of the Republican Party – though of course alot of them are already anyway!  But when their apologists talk about “speaking truth to power” (or at least concerning the powerful, if not present), well, “Blue Churches” would be more capable of doing so IMHO, because the Red Churches ARE THE POWER!!! (except in certain isolated, relatively-more-progressive communities – “community standards,” anyone? States’ Rights? local autonomy?  Apparently only when it agrees with ‘conservatives’!)  And they claim not to desire Red and Blue churches, but of course we have them already!

(Don’t get me started!: Someone wrote that “the churches” made the American Revolution.  But there were churches on both sides of that struggle… and I happen to believe some were right… and some were wrong!!!  But even there, were they endorsing candidates? parties?)

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