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Letter: There's no place for politics on the pulpit

They'll probably be found wrong as a matter of law. Let's hope so, anyway.

But the pastors who deliberately broke tax laws Sunday are even more wrong as a matter of policy. Those pastors likely despise Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the infamous atheist whose challenge pushed the U.S. Supreme Court to ban prayer in public schools. They probably revile Michael Newdow, the activist whose case came close to stripping "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

So, why are the pastors using the same tactics as Newdow and Murray OHair -- namely, pushing an absolutist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution in order to overturn accepted law?

There is no outcry over the IRS's sensible rules, which grant tax-exempt status to churches in return for those churches staying out of party politics. There's no pent-up demand among churchgoers to hear their pastors tell them how to vote.

There's only this eternal truth of American politics: Nobody likes a bully. "Life" magazine called Murray O'Hair "America's most hated woman," and CNN once said Newdow could be the country's most unpopular man.

By using the courts to force an unwanted future -- one in which churches, temples and mosques become red/blue headquarters for partisan politics -- on an unwilling public, the pastors may be tempting the same fates.

First, though, they have to get past the law. Luckily, that's no small job. Currently, a church can openly endorse candidates or it can stay tax-free, but it can't do both. That IRS rule is an unconstitutional restriction on speech, the pastors say: Churches are entitled not only to their tax-free status, but also to be free-speech zones.

Or are they?

The 1954 rule is "settled law," said Robert Tuttle, professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School, to The New York Times.

"It's very, very unlikely that a lower federal court would reach any other conclusion except that religious organizations have no constitutional right to engage in political speech while accepting deductible contributions," he said.

Furthermore, if the electioneering ban is reversible, then the tax exemption is, too.

Exempting churches from taxation is a privilege, not a right. The Constitution says nothing about the practice. The tradition of tax exemption is just that: A tradition, built on an interpretation of the Constitution rather than the document's text.

The courts giveth and the courts taketh away where such interpretations are concerned. And if churches start acting like branch offices of political campaigns, the courts are likely to start taking away.

But whatever the odds are in court, the real question is this: Why are the pastors forcing this issue in the first place?

If religious leaders start routinely telling parishioners who to vote for, there's some chance the end result will be violence. Throughout history, such passions have torn societies apart. They're ripping up some countries even today.

Do Americans really want those furies unleashed?

They don't, in our view. The system works well as it is. The pastors should abandon their quest -- because even if they're successful at it, they're likely to leave our society worse off than it was before. -- Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald