Yesterday my colleague Jeremy Leaming wrote about spending his birthday at the Religious Right's "Values Voter Summit" this past weekend. I was there too, and while it wasn't my birthday, Saturday was a spectacular fall day in Washington, D.C., and I'd much rather have been out bike riding with my son.
But it's necessary that someone keep tabs on the Religious Right, so there I was. (I'll make it up to my son next weekend.) I saw, felt and experienced a lot over those two days, and I will have a full report about the conference in November's Church & State.
This post will look at a breakout session that took place on Saturday afternoon. The topic was churches and politics, and it was hosted by two attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). It was most enlightening – although perhaps not for the reasons they expected.
ADF attorneys Joe Infranco and Gary McCaleb mentioned that three or four churches recently contacted their group after receiving letters from the Internal Revenue Service because the churches distributed voter guides during the 2006 elections.
The IRS says that voter guides must be unbiased and cover a wide range of issues. Over the years, I've seen some guides put out by the Religious Right that should make any sensible pastor run away screaming. This kind of stuff always manages to make the Republican look like a saint and the Democrat a personal imp of Satan himself.
Infranco and McCaleb projected the IRS letter onto a large screen. It was not up there long enough for me to copy the entire thing, but I did get down one important passage. The IRS has expressed concern that these churches may have distributed guides that did not cover "a wide range of subjects, but were limited to controversial issues likely to be of interest to social conservative voters."
That is interesting. If the IRS is indeed cracking down on voter guides, that action is long overdue – it's also something that ought to be of concern to every religious leader in America. The IRS has long warned houses of worship about guides produced by outside organizations. Much of this material is produced by groups that have a stake in the outcome of an election. It has no place in church pews.
McCaleb and Infranco blithely asserted that the ADF will defend these churches and expressed confidence in their ability to win. If I were a pastor, I'm not sure I'd bet my tax exemption on that.
To give the ADF tag team some credit, their advice about pulpit-based politicking was generally sound, and they warned pastors not to use church resources to promote a candidate or make endorsements from the pulpit. I was a little put off by their claim that the penalty for violating the law has so far not been severe when applied to houses of worship. IRS audits, visits by federal tax agents and pastors being forced to sign letters stating that they will abide by the law in the future don't sound like a walk in the park – yet some pastors have endured these things for illegal pulpit politicking.
Non-church ministries have had it even harder. If you want to know if the IRS plays hardball, just ask the folks at Jerry Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour." That group lost its tax exemption for illegal political activities in 1986-87 and was required to pay $50,000 in back taxes.
Finally, one word to McCaleb and Infranco: During the session, Infranco noted that AU staffers were at the conference ("they walk among you" is how he put it), and said the following: "Some time ago, Americans United for Separation sent out letters to – I want to say it was about 50,000 churches, if you're here and I have the wrong number please correct me – essentially threatening them saying, 'You're going to lose your tax-exempt status if you get involved in politics at all.'"
That is a gross oversimplification of what our letter said. AU's letters – and for the record, we sent 117,000 of them in 2006 – advise pastors that discussion of political and social issues is permitted and point out that there is a lot churches can do in the political arena. But the letter makes it clear that endorsement or opposition of candidates is not allowed. Every letter we have ever sent out makes that distinction. In other words, we're telling pastors much the same thing as the ADF. (Read AU's letter here.)
How about you guys knock it off with the distortions? You do your cause no favors when you twist the truth like this.
And yes, we do indeed walk among you – because that's often what it takes to correct the misinformation the ADF spreads about us.