Warning to Churches: Beware of Religious Right
Americans United for Separation of Church and State today called on the nation’s clergy to reject Religious Right attempts to turn houses of worship into centers for partisan politicking.
This Sunday (Oct. 2) the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is sponsoring “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an event in which evangelical pastors are urged to break the law by endorsing or opposing candidates as they conduct religious services.
“This is an appalling attempt by the Religious Right to turn houses of worship into houses of partisan politics,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Americans attend church for spiritual guidance, not to get a list of candidates to vote for on Election Day.
“I know the Religious Right would like to forge fundamentalist churches into a partisan political machine,” Lynn continued, “but the law doesn’t allow it, and the American people don’t want it.”
The ADF, a legal group founded by TV preachers, insists that pastors should have the right to endorse candidates from the pulpit. But Americans United points out that all non-profit groups in the 501(c)(3) category — whether religious or secular — are barred under federal tax law from using non-profit personnel or resources to intervene in elections.
AU’s Lynn noted that the American people do not support church electioneering. A recent study found that 73 percent of Americans agree that religious leaders should not intervene in elections.
Americans United sponsors Project Fair Play, a project that educates clergy and congregants about the requirements of federal tax law. Through Project Fair Play (www.projectfairplay.org), Americans United makes a variety of educational materials available that explain what houses of worship can and can’t do in the political arena.
In cases of flagrant violations of the law, Americans United reports offending religious institutions to the IRS.
“Church electioneering is illegal, and the people don’t support it,” Lynn remarked. “It’s time for the Religious Right to stop trying to drag churches into backroom politics.”
The Internal Revenue Service is charged with enforcing this tax law provision. Religious groups that have been either sanctioned or investigated include:
Christian Broadcasting Network, Virginia Beach, Va.: TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network was stripped of its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 for supporting Robertson’s presidential bid. CBN was required to make a “significant payment” to the IRS, pledge to avoid partisan campaign activities in the future, place more outside directors on its board and implement other organizational and operational changes to ensure tax law compliance.
Old Time Gospel Hour, Lynchburg, Va.: The late Jerry Falwell’s TV ministry lost its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 after a four-year IRS audit determined that the ministry had diverted money to a political action committee. The ministry agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 for those years and to change its organizational structure so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.
Church at Pierce Creek, Binghamton, N.Y.: This church lost its tax-exempt status after running newspaper ads in 1992 urging people not to vote for Bill Clinton. Assisted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, the church sued to get its exemption back but lost in federal court.
Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas: This prominent Texas church endured a three-year IRS audit after the church was reported to the federal tax agency for alleged involvement with a special project in 1996 designed to encourage members to attend a GOP precinct convention with the aim of electing certain individuals to local committees.
Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, New York, N.Y.: This church was visited by IRS agents and its pastor, the Rev. Floyd Flake, was asked to sign documents stating that he would not intervene in election campaigns after he endorsed presidential candidate Al Gore from the pulpit in 2000.
Bill Keller Ministries/Live Prayer, St. Petersburg, Fla.: The founder of this ministry was contacted by the IRS, which sent him a list of detailed questions to answer about his political activity, after he issued a “devotional” on the ministry’s website in 2007 asserting that voting for Mitt Romney is the same as voting for Satan.
In addition, in 2006 the IRS issued a report stating that it examined 132 non-profits during the 2004 election cycle. The tax agency noted that “fewer than half” of the entities examined were churches and concluded that in many of the cases, significant violations of the law had occurred. Written warnings were issued in 55 cases.
In 2008, the IRS took the step of sending letters to officials in the national political parties, reminding them that houses of worship and other tax-exempt entities cannot endorse candidates.