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This year’s presidential election has fueled a legal debate over what a priest can and can’t say about politics in church. The Internal Revenue Service, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates or engaging in political activity, has issued a presidential advisory to all charities nationwide urging them to keep quiet or risk losing their tax-exempt status. And religious watchdogs are monitoring churches closely, in some cases hiding out in pews and spying on pastors to make sure they’re not endorsing anyone. So far, five churches have been reported to the IRS for alleged political misconduct. But a group called the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is fighting back, arguing that the First Amendment overrides IRS tax guidelines and gives religious leaders the freedom to preach freely from the pulpit. Praying for Bush? Most recently, the Becket group mailed 300,000 letters to houses of worship nationwide, notifying leaders of their legal rights to preach, and endorse, as they wish. “To step in there and try to regulate what a priest says is an atrocity,” said attorney Jared Leland, with the Becket group. “There is no law here. This is a guideline. This is a threat. This is just plain censorship.” Leland said he has received calls and letters from dozens of religious leaders who say they’ve been notified by the IRS or watchdogs, but are still confused over their legal rights. One group has even written the IRS asking if it can pray for Bush’s re-election in church. Absolutely not, argues the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which recently filed a complaint with the IRS against an Arkansas pastor accused of delivering a pro-Bush sermon during the summer. “You’d literally have to come from the planet Saturn to know that this wasn’t an endorsement for Bush,” attorney Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said of the sermon. “Tax exemption is a privilege, it’s not a right in this country. And if you want to engage in political activity as a nonprofit you have to change your status.” The pastor, Ronnie Floyd of the First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., could not be reached for comment. According to the IRS, the federal courts have upheld the prohibition on political campaign activity by charities. For example, in the 2000 decision in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, 211 F.3d 137 (D.C. Cir.), the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia ruled against a New York church that took out a full-page ad denouncing Bill Clinton’s moral beliefs in USA Today and the Washington Times.

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