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October 5, 2012

Clerical Error? Local pastors question wisdom of pulpit politics

JACKSONVILLE —

As Pulpit Freedom Sunday approaches, some local pastors say they have mixed feelings about its objectives. The event — which takes place this weekend — was created by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an evangelical Christian organization, in 2008. The initiative encourages pastors to preach about campaign and election issues in violation of an IRS mandate restricting religious organizations from engaging in such communications.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has encouraged pastors to contact them for legal counsel if their political speech comes under IRS scrutiny. Rev. R.G. Ericson, pastor of First Christian Church, said ministry leaders should avoid speaking on campaign issues unless they and their organizations are willing to accept the penalty for doing so.

“If pastors do choose to speak out in violation of those IRS requirements, I think that the consequences for any kind of civil disobedience are that you have to deal with the ramifications,” Ericson, 63, said. “The churches pay no income tax. If they want to start paying taxes on their income, they can speak out the way any other business person can speak out.”

Restrictions on church — and other nonprofit — political communications were enacted by Congress in 1954. Lawmakers feared people who donated money to nonprofit organizations might end up getting tax rebates on charitable contributions that were ostensibly political if the recipient organizations were heavily involved with campaigns. Rev. Tom Moore, pastor of First Church of the Nazarene, decried the IRS rules and said churches should be able to maintain their tax-exemptions while espousing political ideas. But he said even if churches had that prerogative, that doesn't mean they should use it.

“It's not appropriate, to me, to do it. I think some people ought to be allowed to do it if they believe that's what they should do, but I could not or would not do it” Moore, 68, said.

Darwin Wood, pastor of Central Baptist Church, also supported the idea of political-free speech for churches while being ambivalent about its application.

“I agree with the concept, but politics are limited to time and space and we as humans are eternal. I won't be spending precious time from the pulpit talking about politics.”

Local pastors said it's appropriate for ministry leaders to discuss issues of voter concern, so long as they don't endorse a particular candidate or party. That idea is consistent with the IRS guidelines for nonprofit organizations. Ministries are allowed to take stances on political matters that don't affect elections for public office. Moore used his preaching platform to denounce Proposition 2 — a ballot item ultimately approved by voters two years ago — which liberalized alcohol-sales laws in Jacksonville. Rev. Kenneth D. Cain, of Benson Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, said pastors should play a role in educating congregation members about civic issues while avoiding partisanship.

“The church has to deal with the total person. That's why political issues would be relevant to the congregation,” Cain, 54, said. “You just don't deal with the faith of the people, you have to deal with the health of the people as well.”

Wood said pastors should be considerate of the philosophical diversity that might exist throughout their pews.

“If I talked about politics, I would be stirring up a huge hornet's nest in my church because we have people of all political stripes here. I wouldn't want to polarize people,” Wood said.

Joel McMahon, pastor of First United Methodist Church, also said ministry leaders should approach politics with the outmost sensitivity.

“I think that a pastor should be able to speak to issues and as anything they need to be thoughtful in how they approach those issues,” McMahon, 44, said. “As for me, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a non-issue.”

Moore feared that partisan politics are having a hindering effect on the core mission of churches.

“I think politics are an absolute distraction. Churches and religious leaders have gotten much too involved in it. It doesn't make any eternal difference and it creates barriers to reaching people.

“If you take a strong political stand that this party or that party is the only party that Christians can support, then you've put a barrier between you and someone with a different opinion and that makes ministering to them more difficult,” Moore said. “I don't think that's a wise thing to do.”

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