I Sit and Look Out: Boro houses of worship must end pulpit politics

Of course, every year is an election year, as the governor, the mayor, the borough presidents, the members of Congress, the state Legislature and the City Council can attest.

But since a president is elected…

By Kenneth Kowald

Have you noticed? This is an election year!

Of course, every year is an election year, as the governor, the mayor, the borough presidents, the members of Congress, the state Legislature and the City Council can attest.

But since a president is elected this year, this, the media tell us, is an election year. We should be grateful for such information, in case the onslaught of television advertising and all other forms of propaganda for candidates might cause us to lose sight of the fact.

This is a good time to remember what Article I of the Bill of Rights of our Constitution says (in part): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That has always meant to me, since I first read it, that government is neutral when it comes to religion and that there is firmly established in this country the idea of the separation of church (or synagogue or mosque or temple or chapel) and state.

Those who have made any kind of serious study of history know that those who wrote the Constitution were only too well aware of the problems that a close church-state relationship meant. In countries where that existed, the people were subject to the religious will of the ruler and were not the rulers — publicly, at least — of their own consciences. This was not to be the American way, the Constitution made clear.

When last I looked, houses of worship were exempt from many taxes and that exemption, if I am correct, is based at least in part on those houses of worship not engaging in overt political activities. Election intervention is prohibited by statute in the federal tax code but not commentary about political and moral issues, which are protected by the First Amendment.

Look around you, right here in Queens. During any political season, candidates speak openly on behalf of their own candidacies in houses or worship during worship services. They are clearly campaigning for public office during a religious rite. Is this not a violation of the First Amendment?

And even clergy people openly speak on behalf of candidates during worship services. Certainly they are entitled to think and speak as they please — but don’t they violate their tax exemptions when they openly campaign for candidates from the pulpit?

As I understand it, the Internal Revenue Service says that clergy may personally endorse candidates, but they cannot do it on behalf of their institution. If they do so, they risk losing their tax-exempt status.

Is there another way? Let me suggest one that worked right here in Queens.

During the 1993 campaign for mayor, an attendee at a central Queens “main line” Protestant church, which has an ethnically diverse congregation, asked the pastor if Rudy Giuliani could speak at a service. No, the minister said, but he was welcome to attend a service and to meet with people during the coffee hour afterward, as would any other visitor. He added that a similar invitation would be extended to his rival, Mayor David Dinkins.

Further, he said, the presence of either or both of these candidates, it would be made very clear, would not in any way indicate an endorsement of any kind. The plan for this event was made clear to the congregation.

As it turned out, Dinkins did not respond to such an invitation, but Giuliani did. He came to the service on time, participated in it as a member of the congregation, went to the coffee hour and spoke to those who were interested in meeting him. No mention of his presence was made from the pulpit.

No speech from the pulpit, no endorsement of a candidate, no violation of one of the foundations of our country. Indeed, it is my understanding that the Internal Revenue Service has ruled that candidates may appear in a house of worship, but only if other candidates have the same access and if the religious organization does not indicate support or opposition to the candidate.

If only other houses of worship would follow this example. The First Amendment would be kept inviolate and so would its ringing provision against “abridging freedom of speech.”

In another presidential election year, John F. Kennedy said this: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be a Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds; and where no man is denied public office because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

Amen to that, and let’s apply it to every election and every candidate and every religion.

In this election year can’t we do better than use the pulpit for politics? Why not start right here in Queens and get politics out of the pulpit.

More from Around New York