Altar Call: Americans United Letter Urges Clergy To Reject Church Electioneering

Yesterday I received some interesting mail from two residents of Colorado. Each envelope contained the same thing: a 20-page glossy publication produced by Ridgway Christian Center in Ridgway, Colo.

The publication features a calendar of upcoming ministry events and a list of conservative websites that the group recommends. But the most interesting thing about the publication is its cover: It’s a photo of a bunch of American flags headlined, “Honor God! Love your country! VOTE REPUBLICAN!”

Inside is a four-page broadside by ministry founder and president Victoria Hearst insisting that her ministry has the right to endorse candidates despite its tax-exempt status. Hearst’s piece leans heavily on material from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), so it’s not surprising that her analysis is horribly off base.

On Oct. 7, the ADF is sponsoring “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event during which evangelical pastors are urged to openly violate the law be endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Hearst has apparently decided to get a head-start on things.

Americans United will be sending the Ridgway publication to the IRS later today along with a letter requesting a formal investigation. I suspect that missive won’t be our last complaint to the IRS this year. With the election coming up in about six weeks, we expect more of this kind of thing.

Today’s New York Times contains an article reporting about an earlier AU complaint concerning a Catholic church in New York City. St. Catherine of Siena ran an appeal in its bulletin by several former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican imploring people to vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

In this case, some progressive Catholics decided they had had enough and started a petition urging church officials to crack down on these endorsements. Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, told The Times that the church takes the matter seriously.

Zwilling said, “I wouldn’t comment beyond noting that archdiocesan policy is clear that our churches should not endorse candidates for office.”

That’s nice. But perhaps the bishops should back up those words with a little action. Many of them are running around the country screaming that President Barack Obama is infringing their church’s religious liberty and making lurid comments about the availability of birth control, marriage equality and legal abortion hastening the end of Western Civilization. Local priests might be forgiven for assuming that the church hierarchy is backing Romney

Last week, Americans United mailed 60,000 informational letters to a broad cross section of American houses of worship. The letters remind pastors that congregations are free to address public issues, but the law prohibits tax-exempt ministries from intervening in political races.

We know the letters are getting out there because we’ve already had a significant amount of feedback. While a good bit of it is negative, some pastors have emailed to say that they appreciate AU’s work in this area.

A pastor in Ohio wrote in to say, “Many thanks for the letter of caution concerning houses of worship stating political opinions when it comes to voting. I have a hard time explaining to people that we cannot have an opinion. As senior pastor, I can have a personal opinion, even put a sign in my yard if I wish (I do not – I do not need to alienate half of our members), but as a church, we cannot have an opinion. Your letter will be shared with many.”

Supporters of Americans United can help with this project. The letter we’ve been sending to clergy is online at AU’s Project Fair Play site. It’s signed by AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, and it all ready to go. You can download it there and mail it off to as many houses of worship as you like. (Here is a direct link to the letter.)

And, yes, all houses of worship must abide by this law. Liberal-leaning churches are not permitted to endorse Democrats any more than conservative congregations can endorse Republicans. AU has in the past reported churches from all over the political spectrum. Our letter was sent to houses of worship that are considered liberal as well as conservative.  

Non-profit status and tax exemption are great benefits. Groups – religious and non-religious – that seek to retain that status must abide by a few simple rules. One of them is no partisan politicking. It’s not too much to ask. And any church that really believes that it must wade into an electoral contest is free to surrender its tax exemption first.

But they never do that, do they? Some misguided religious leaders want all of the benefits of tax exemption with none of the reasonable oversight regulations.

It’s just not right. I urge you to help Americans United put a stop to it.