Tax exemption carries a price

On a recent Sunday, pastors at 33 churches in 22 states, including the Rev. Jody Hice of Bethlehem First Baptist Church near Athens, Ga., declared war on an Internal Revenue Service code that decrees a church that endorses political candidates can lose its tax exempt status. Each of these churches, taking part in a protest sponsored by the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group, endorsed Republican John McCain for president and sent copies of the sermons to the IRS.

This was the opening shot in a battle dubbed "Political Freedom Sunday" that the group hopes will culminate in the abolition of the 1954 tax code that prohibits houses of worship from endorsing candidates. The likelihood that this will succeed appears slim, and rightly so.

We have no objection to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques or other houses of worship endorsing candidates for political office. If they choose to go this route, however, it is only proper that they not become a taxpayer-backed organ for a political candidate. If a religious group opts to join a political effort, it should do so in the knowledge there will be consequences. As the Associated Press reported, the ban earlier survived a court challenge "when a U.S. appellate court upheld the revocation of tax-exempt status of a New York church that took out a newspaper ad urging Christians to vote against Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election."

For that matter, a majority of the population appears to strongly oppose political endorsements by religious organizations. For example, a Pew organization survey on religion and public life conduced in August found 66 percent of Americans said they believe pastors should not make endorsements while acting as church leaders. Likewise, Lifeway Research, a non-profit group associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, conducted a poll last June, the AP reported, that found 85 percent of Americans opposed endorsements by religious organizations.

The next step seems obvious. The IRS should notify each of the violators without delay that they no longer enjoy tax exempt status.