By Barry Lynn
Over the weekend, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett appeared in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where she praised President Barack Obama’s policies and criticized the Republicans for not helping the middle class.
Several people have emailed Americans United about the speech, asserting that Ebenezer Baptist, which was Martin Luther King’s church, has violated federal law by intervening in politics.
I have not heard Jarrett’s entire speech. A snippet from an Atlanta news station has been making the rounds, but it literally contains just a few seconds of her address, which reportedly lasted 20 minutes.
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Federal law states that houses of worship and other non-profits may not intervene in partisan elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. They are permitted to discuss issues.
Nothing I heard in the news reports about this incident indicates that Jarrett told people how to vote. Yes, she praised Obama and criticized the GOP. But pastors laud or blast politicians all of the time. Unless they take the additional step of advising congregants how they ought to vote or engage in some other action (distributing candidate literature in church, endorsing a candidate on the church website, donating church funds to a candidate), they’re not likely to attract IRS scrutiny.
Some folks on the right enjoy baiting Americans United by insisting that we don’t turn in churches that endorse Democrats. This is not true. In 2010, AU reported the Greater New Birth Church in Milwaukee to the IRS after the church hosted a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett days before election. We noted that the pastor introduced the candidate as “our future governor.”
Also in 2010, we asked the IRS to investigate Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, whose pastor allowed Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, to speak from the pulpit during a Sunday service. We noted that Cuomo was introduced by another politician who attacked Cuomo’s opponent and urged attendees to vote for Cuomo. In addition, the pastor later endorsed Cuomo from pulpit.
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And, yes, we have reported religious groups for endorsing Obama. In October of 2008, AU asked the IRS to investigate the entire General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina after the group hosted what appeared to be a rally for Obama that featured his wife, Michelle Obama. During the speech, Ms. Obama promoted her husband’s candidacy.
These are just a few examples. There are many more. (For a complete list of AU’s reports to the IRS, see here.)
Some people who have contacted Americans United about this matter have also complained because Ebenezer Baptist was sponsoring a voter registration drive. This is not illegal. Houses of worship frequently sponsor voter registration drives. They can do it as long as the approach is non-partisan and the church registers people in whatever party they choose.
To our right-wing friends who are not happy with this response, I would simply say this: If you believe Ebenezer Baptist is in violation of the law, then tell the IRS. The IRS is happy to take reports from any citizen or activist group. The tax agency makes it easy. You can usethis form. I doubt anything will come of it, but if you believe you have a case, make it.
One thing we can learn from this incident is that partisan politicking in church is a bad idea. AU has made that argument many times. Increasingly, Americans are telling pollsters that they go to houses of worship for spiritual reasons, not to hear political rants. (Such talk was especially inappropriate in this case, coming as it did during the King holiday weekend. A service emphasizing unity, not partisan division, would have better honored King.)
But political rants at churches, while they may be inappropriate and divisive, are not always a violation of the law. Sometimes, they are simply unhelpful, unwelcome and unnecessary.