Pulpit Freedom Sunday and Bible banners

Today some U.S. churches engaged in a type of civil disobedience; see “Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Pastors Challenge IRS Ban On Political Endorsements” (HuffPo piece by Lily Fowler on the 5th):

As part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” on Oct. 7, religious leaders across the country will endorse political candidates — an act that flies in the face of Internal Revenue Service rules about what tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, can and cannot do.

Also on the 5th, the NYT reported on a school story, in “Cheerleaders With Bible Verses Set Off a Debate” by Manny Fernandez, which begins:

Kountze, Tex. — The hand-painted red banner created by high school cheerleaders here for Friday night’s football game against Woodville was finished days ago. It contains a passage from the Bible — Hebrews 12:1 — that reads: “And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.”

That banner, and other religious-themed signs made by the high school and middle school cheerleading squads in recent weeks, have embroiled this East Texas town in a heated debate over God, football and cheerleaders’ rights.

The two episodes illustrate the tensions in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or …

First point: the amendment enjoins (the U.S.) Congress from making certain kinds of laws. In later court decisions, the injunction has been extended to other levels of legislation and to actions of governmental bodies like school boards.

Second point: the amendment stipulates both freedom from religion (no “establishment of religion”) and freedom for religion (no “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion), and at the same time guarantees “freedom of speech” — thus setting up any number of potential conflicts between the three principles, according to to how the phrases establishment of religion, free exercise of religion, and free speech are to be understood in law. The two stories above show some of the complexities.

The Pulpit Freedom story continued:

The IRS says tax-exempt organizations, or what they refer to as a 501(c)(3), are prohibited from participating in partisan campaigning for or against political candidates. Yet, despite what’s in the rules, the agency [which is short of money for enforcement] continues to struggle to do anything about those who defy the law.

The tax exemption for religious institutions is intended to protect their freedom from government control, but it’s hedged by protection for the populace, by barring religious institutions from engaging in partisan political campaigns (if they wish to keep theit tax-exempt status). Push-back against these balanced positions, in favor of free speech and independence from governmental oversight:

… “Every pastor and every church has the right to decide what their pastor preaches from the pulpit and to not have that dictated to them by the IRS,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly the Alliance Defense Fund.

Jim Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif., says the prohibition has caused religious leaders to shy away from speaking about what they see as theological truth, such as the belief that homosexuality is biblically unacceptable.

“The line is being slid so fast, so far, that people no longer recognize authentic biblical preaching and they’re calling it political,” he said.

Today’s parishioners, he said, are starving for religious leaders to act as “the moral compass of society.” Garlow said he’s witnessed pastors who boldly speak on political issues receive standing ovations.

Here the potential conflicts with the Bill of Rights involve religious teachings and authority, moral leadership, and political action. Groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom tend to take the position that their bible is in fact the Word of God, not merely religious teaching, and, as such, is above the law of man — a position that the courts are of course not sympathetic to. So these groups see the courts as interfering with their religious freedom. For a contrary opinion:

But the Rev. Susan Russell, an associate pastor at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., which the IRS investigated several years ago over a 2004 antiwar sermon it claimed was illegal, said churches should dedicate themselves to being robustly political without being partisan.

All Saints, for example, has always taken a stance on social justice issues such as war or the death penalty, but they do so, Russell said, without endorsing specific candidates.

Russell understands partisan politics narrowly, as the endorsement of specific candidates (while permitting the endorsement of positions — for or against a war, or, more specifically, for or against a ballot measure).

On to the cheerleaders with bible verses: God, football, and cheerleaders’ rights. That story comtinues:

School district officials ordered the cheerleaders to stop putting Bible verses on the banners, because they believed doing so violated the law on religious expression at public school events. In response, a group of 15 cheerleaders and their parents sued the Kountze Independent School District and its superintendent, Kevin Weldon, claiming that prohibiting the students from writing Christian banner messages violated their religious liberties and free-speech rights.

… “I feel like it’s getting God’s word out to those that need it,” Kieara, 16, said of the banners.

Another manifestation of God’s word over man’s laws: getting God’s word out (to those not born again in Christ) is more important than obeying the law. And in any case the cheerleaders believe that such acts of evangelism are protected as religioius liberty and/or free speech.

At summer cheer camp, Kieara [Moffett] and other cheerleaders decided to inscribe religious messages on run-through banners — the 30-foot-wide, 10-foot-high paper signs that football players burst through as they enter the field. Rather than the typical slogans reading “Scalp the Indians” or “Pluck the Eagles” that they considered too negative, they came up with what they felt were more inspiring phrases. The first one read: “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”

,,, One of the lawyers representing the students and their families, David Starnes, argued that the cheerleaders’ Bible-themed banners were protected private speech, not government-sanctioned speech, and that the Supreme Court’s ruling did not apply in this case because it had nothing to do with prayer. Cheerleading practice as well as banner-making occur after school on campus, and the squads are led by students, though adult advisers monitor and assist them. No school funds are used to purchase the banner supplies.

Another very narrowly-defined position, trying to restrict the domain of government-sanctioned speech to prayer (which is clearly subject to court rulings), other expressions of religious belief being classified as private speech, which is protected.

(The fact that cheerleading practice and banner-making are done outside of school hours, not as a school project, and without school funding for the banner supplies seems to me to be irrelevant to the point of contention here, which has to do with the role played by the banners, which display Christan texts, in school football games.)

No d0ubt there will be more to come.

2 Responses to “Pulpit Freedom Sunday and Bible banners”

  1. the ridger Says:

    I truly wish the IRS would hit those churches. If they’re all that bent out of shape about the government, why are they freeloading on their taxes in the first place?

  2. Bible banner news « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in an earlier posting of mine: Kountze cheerleaders at football games elaborated on their practice of displaying […]

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