cross and cloudsWritten by Don Byrd

According to a CBS News report today, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin encouraged ministers to violate IRS regulations prohibiting 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from officially endorsing candidates for office or otherwise engaging in electioneering. The remarks came during a private meeting, but were apparently recorded on video by an attendee.

Here is more from the CBS News report:

Bevin called the federal law a “paper tiger” during an address to a group of preachers at the governor’s mansion last month.

“There is no reason to fear it; there is no reason to be silent,” the governor told the group. “And that we have been exhorted and encouraged to have this boldness and this spirit, to be unapologetic, and I would encourage you to do it.”

In his speech, Bevin declared that no church has ever had its tax-exempt status revoked for breaking the law.

Well, that is not exactly true. But, the agency has in recent years pursued very few cases, despite being essentially invited to investigate by those who protest the regulation. Every year, and with gusto during election years, a number of pastors openly flout the law barring pulpit endorsements in an effort to create a test-case legal battle. “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” which this year was held last Sunday, is annually ignored by the IRS.

Of course, IRS investigations of any kind into churches is exceedingly rare. As the CBS report notes, “in 2009, the IRS suspended auditing churches on a regulatory technicality, according to an audit by the United States Government Accountability Office. The regulation has still not been rewritten.”*

Churches may not currently face a likelihood of sanctions, but that does not mean violating the law is a laudable form of church leadership, or is a good idea. After all, the ban on church politicking not only keeps tax-exempt organizations from entering the fray of campaign politics; it also helps keep the world of campaign politics out of our houses of worship.

What I find even more troublesome is a political leader, a state official, who would assures ministers they may safely cross boundaries of federal law and should. In fact, the regulation offers a key protection of church finances and autonomy. 

It’s no surprise that an elected office holder would love for his electoral campaign to have access to the pews of churches in his constituency. But, it’s also not an especially courageous stance, from the safe perch of the Governor’s Mansion, to encourage others to engage in civil disobedience inside their own sanctuaries. Ministers and their congregations have to make their own decisions about their willingness to brazenly violate the conditions of the non-profit tax exemption they enjoy. I would suggest it’s not for government officials to do any pushing.

For more, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resources on church electioneering, including “Pastors, pulpits and politicking,” by the BJC’s Jennifer Hawks.

*Note: This post has been edited for clarity.