Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pagans and Pulpit Freedom Sunday

(Cross-posted at witchesandpagans.com)

Sunday, October 7, marks the 5th annual (I believe) Pulpit Freedom Sunday; a mass protest against the legal prohibition against non-profit organizations (including churches) from endorsing political candidates in elections.

Let it be clear from the outset; this is an issue that affects churches and non-profit groups both conservative and liberal. Although one gets the impression that conservative-leaning churches are spearheading the protest itself, the effect would be felt by churches and non-profits on all sides of the political spectrum. Not only would Evangelical pastors and Mormon groups be free to endorse a Republican for office, so too would Episcopal priests and Black Church leaders be free to endorse a Democrat, in much the same way that the Jehovah's Witnesses made precedent-shaping court cases that today benefit Wiccans and Atheists by abolishing compulsory school prayer.

And, it should go without saying, that Pagan and Heathen groups would be able to avail themselves of the opportunity to endorse specific candidates. For those who would choose to become more politically active if the law allowed, this could be a powerful tool in community activism. One could see Wiccan covens endorsing Green Party candidate Jill Stein for office, and Asatru kindreds endorsing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

I was somewhat astonished to learn the history of this ban, myself. I had assumed that it, along with the general principle that churches were exempt from business or income taxes, was one of those things that went back to the founding of the nation. Boy, was I wrong. Apparently, it goes back to the Johnson Amendment of 1954, when then-Senator Lyndon Johnson (who would go on to become president) got the amendment passed explicitly in order to silence non-profit groups who were opposing his re-election. No high-minded principle was involved; it was pure power politics employed to benefit a single powerful Senator. And the question of the Amendment's constitutionality has apparently never been tested.

The significance of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is plain. If the IRS attempts to enforce the ban on endorsing political candidates by 501(c) organizations (which extends beyond churches into a wide variety of different non-profit organizations; the NRA and the Sierra Club would both find themselves benefiting from a change in the law), then a lawsuit can be filed that would, presumably, make its way to the Supreme Court to settle the matter of whether or not such a ban was constitutional.

I think Pagan and Heathen groups should support such a process, and should come down on the side of overturning the ban. Many Pagan and Heathen groups (not just covens, groves, and kindreds, but other non-profits that deal with Pagan/Heathen issues such as the Lady Liberty League) have social and political activism as one of their goals and central activities.

There is no reason that they (or anyone) should be constrained by an arbitrary ban, and should welcome the restoration of their rights (assuming, of course, that such a ban is ultimately found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, or is simply not enforced by the IRS after the provocation that tomorrow promises to bring), as it opens up yet another means for Pagan and Heathen groups to influence, and ultimately thereby become a part of, mainstream society.

This is not to say that there aren't potential pitfalls. Individuals in a group that endorses a particular candidate for office may find themselves disagreeing with that endorsement, and hard feelings (or worse) could ensue. But these are not issues that are unique to Pagans and Heathens; it may even lead to a more robust conversation within the Pagan and Heathen community as organizations are confronted with the fact that their membership may not be quite as homogeneous as they might have previously supposed. Which would be a good thing in and of itself.

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