For several years legal organizations (such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice) have been openly challenging the portion of the IRS tax-exempt status form that prohibits churches and pastors from publicly endorsing candidates or recommending specific actions against legislation. Churches and pastors essentially sell their right to free speech in exchange for letting donors write their contributions off on their taxes. The reason these organizations (and many other people as well, including me) oppose this provision is that it buys off the pastors’ freedom of political expression in an unconstitutional manner. That is, the tax code violates the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech of the pastors and the organizations they represent (i.e., churches). (By the way, we also think it contradicts scriptures’ mandate for the church to be a prophetic voice into the secular world, such as Martin Luther King did for his entire career.)
But the legal organizations lacked ‘standing’ to sue the IRS because the orgs themselves were not affected by the provisions. So for several years they have been baiting the IRS to challenge pastors’ political speech, but the IRS has not been taking the bait, because there is a credible legal case to be made for the code being unconstitutional, and the IRS is likely to lose.
Enter Houston. The demand to review clergy sermons over sermons that addressed the city’s public facilities anti-discrimination law (that is, the law that allow men who dress like women to use women’s public restrooms, and vice versa) is almost certainly based on this unconstitutional portion of the IRS tax code.
Finally, the clergy have standing to sue the city of Houston, and however this individual situation ends up, the decision about the free speech of our clergy and our churches will eventually be appealed to and addressed by the federal courts. It will take a few years, but the lesbian mayor of Houston has done for clergy rights what the IRS wouldn’t do.