It's surprising that confusion continues over the question of the First Amendment rights of churches, since the issue was decided in court more than a decade ago. The case arose when Branch Ministries filed suit against the IRS for revoking the church's tax-exempt status. The revocation resulted from advertisements the church ran in 1992 urging Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton because of his positions on certain moral issues. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the IRS, which was upheld on appeal to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on May 12, 2000.
The case is an interesting read, but can be summarized as follows: Churches can exercise First Amendment rights in the political arena provided they use funds that contributors don't deduct on their tax returns. The court even opines that a church can carry on political campaigning without losing its tax-exempt status by incorporating a separate nonprofit entity that can then create a political action committee, as long as tax-free dollars aren't used to fund the PAC.
Tax-exempt status is a conditional privilege that can be withdrawn for failure to meet the conditions on which the privilege is based. In the case of churches, current statutes condition tax-exempt status on nonintervention in political campaigns. Maybe churches should lift a chapter from the Trojan War and “Beware the Greeks bearing gifts.”
Harry C. Johnson, Oklahoma City