My parish priest came to my office the other day. I said, "Father, this is a surprise! I haven't seen you for, what, 30 years?" He looked glum as he responded, "Yes, I should talk to you about that, but I'm here for another reason." I asked what was on his mind.
He took a breath, got down on his knees and intoned, "Bless me, counselor, for I have sinned?? 1/2 "
"Wait, wait, Father. You sound like you're confessing to me. Isn't that backward?"
"Not according to Monsignor Mike. He says my prayers for public officials during Mass violate IRS regulations and that if I keep it up we could lose our tax exemption, especially during election season." He looked frightened, as if he'd seen an IRS agent in the front pew. "Can this be true?"
I didn't want to scare him even more, so I eased into the legal thicket of issues he'd raised.
"Well, it depends. Do you pray for public officials by name, or by their titles? For example, it might make a difference if you pray for 'the president of the United States' rather than for 'George W. Bush.' And, the IRS would probably be less concerned about your prayers if you prayed every Sunday for public officials rather than just before an election."
He interrupted, "Do I have to keep records of all the people we pray for?"
"No, no. Nothing like that," I tried to sound reassuring. "Just all the public officials and candidates for office." Even as I said it I knew he wasn't comforted, but I soldiered on. "I'd also want to know the exact words you used in your prayers to determine whether they constituted an endorsement, especially during election season. Of course there are some phrases you should absolutely avoid, like if you were to say, 'God and I want you to vote for Senator Bimblestiffer on Tuesday.' That would be over the top."
The old priest looked stunned then collected his thoughts. "Since when does the government get to tell me how I should minister to my flock? God's word is not beholden to any earthly authority, much less the IRS! Whatever happened to the separation of church and state in this country? And, by the way," he added, "what about my free speech rights?"
"Amen to that, Father," I replied. "You've spotted important issues, but the government is really just trying to stay out of politics itself by not subsidizing your political activities with a tax exemption or by allowing your congregants to deduct their contributions to your church from their income tax. That's why all non-profits are prohibited from getting political."
His response was nearly thunderous. "Only my bishop and the Holy Father in Rome can tell me when my sermons and prayers are out of line! I'm not going to let some bureaucrat tell me how I can ask God for help in healing the sick, housing the poor and feeding the hungry."
"Sorry, Father. To you the Pope may be infallible, but that cuts no ice with the IRS." I feared I was being too blunt, so I added, "The IRS doesn't want to write your sermons; heck, they can barely write a useful private letter ruling." That last point seemed lost on him, but I continued. "They just want to make sure you're not using the church to campaign on behalf of any candidates."
At that, an idea occurred to him. "I don't want to get 'political' either, but as a pastor I will not hesitate to urge my congregation to do their part to make this world a better place. Actually, I do that every Sunday. And if I think a candidate for office would be good for us all, then I am going to tell them so. That's not political activity. That's God's work."
How was I going to tell him the messy truth? "Father, I'm afraid the IRS thinks at least some of 'God's work' is political activity. But if you don't want to worry about IRS agents hounding you, all you have to do is drop your tax exemption. That would solve your problem."
He harumphed, "So this is what we've come to. I have to pay taxes to preach freely on Sundays about faith and charity, even as my sermons have to compete with football games organized by the tax-exempt NFL." He looked at me dolefully, "Is that right?"
"Legally speaking? Yes."
Bruce Collins is the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN.