Outrage at Suggestion Pastors Should Obey Law

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By Barry Lynn

Take a look at the picture of me accompanying this blog post. Do I look scary to you?

I didn’t think so.

But I’ve apparently managed to terrify Jerry Newcombe and some of his Religious Right friends. They say I’ve been stalking the land like a kind of civil liberties Godzilla, stomping on the rights of Christian pastors all over the nation.

In a recent Christian Post op-ed, Newcombe, who is with Truth in Action Ministries, a group connected with the late TV preacher D. James Kennedy, blasts Americans United and me for daring to suggest that pastors ought to obey the law.

I didn’t think that was such a frightening thing to do. In fact, it’s downright uncontroversial. If there’s one message that comes through loud and clear these days, it’s that the American people don’t want their houses of worship to become cogs in some candidate’s political machine. They support the law that prevents this from happening.

The polls on this aren’t even close. Americans overwhelmingly oppose church electioneering. Even LifeWay Research, a polling arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (hardly a font of political or theological liberalism), has found that 85 percent of Americans believe it is not “appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates for public office,” and 87 percent do not ‘believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service.”

Nevertheless, the Religious Right, which is determined to forge a church-based political machine to assist ultra-conservative candidates, continues to prod pastors to get partisan in the pulpit.

Newcombe’s column, which is also being distributed by the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow, tells pastors that they really have nothing to worry about when it comes to electoral politics. In his article, headlined “Pastors and the IRS Bogeyman,” he accused me of trying to scare churches into silence.

I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’m merely pointing out what federal law says, and I’m recommending that churches follow it.

Federal tax law is quite clear on this matter. All organizations – religious and secular – that hold a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. They can speak out on issues. They can conduct non-partisan voter registration drives. They can advise congregants to stay informed on the issues of the day. But they can’t tell people whom to vote for or against.

Despite what Newcombe claims, the Internal Revenue Service does enforce this law. In 2006, the IRS reports that it investigated allegations of partisan political involvement by 46 churches and other religious organizations. Forty-two were found to have violated the law and issued written warnings. Furthermore, the IRS later announced that it followed up on the organizations that were issued warnings to make certain none had violated the law again.

High-profile television ministries affiliated with Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell have also been investigated for political involvement. Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network was found to be in violation and required to make a “significant payment” to the IRS. It also had to 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.

Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour 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.

Interestingly, the story quotes Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University’s law school, who asserts, “I think Barry Lynn's letter is bogus. It’s basically full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Staver has been associated with Falwell for a long time and must know about the steep fine the Old-Time Gospel Hour had to pay and the changes it had to make. He chooses to ignore the situation because of its uncomfortable facts. Thus I’m not sure his advice in this area is terribly sound.

In New York, the Church at Pierce Creek lost its tax exemption after publishing a newspaper ad attacking presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. Newcombe acts as if this was no big deal. But if it wasn’t, why did attorneys with Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice sue in court in an (unsuccessful) effort to get it back?

Could the IRS be more aggressive in this area? Absolutely. In my view, the agency too often gives warnings when it should take tougher actions. But anyone who argues that the IRS doesn’t enforce the law hasn’t been paying attention.

Of course, it’s easy for Newcombe and those who think like him to advise pastors to ignore the laws of the land. He’s not the one who will have to face an IRS audit or pay fines if the tax agency decides to investigate.

But at the end of the day, it isn’t fear of audits, fines and loss of tax exemption that keeps most pastors from intervening in partisan politics. It’s the realization that it’s not their job and the understanding that their congregants don’t look to them for advice on whom to cast ballots for in the voting booth.

Many of you know that I am an ordained Christian minister. I was trained to help people grapple with some fairly heady questions: What is the nature of good and evil? How are we to live our lives? Is there an order to the universe?

These questions are thorny enough. Claiming that I also have some divine insight from God about whether Sen. Jones or Mayor Smith should be reelected is just plain arrogance.


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