Church Politicking Is Summer's Hot Topic

From President George W. Bush's efforts to enlist "friendly congregations" in his re-election bid to TV preacher Jerry Falwell's partisan shenanigans, church politicking has become a July-hot issue this summer.

Falwell, in his latest salvo against separation of church and state, used his tax-exempt Jerry Falwell Ministries to both endorse Bush's re-election and to encourage his followers to donate to the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee run by social conservative Gary Bauer. Separately these actions warrant the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. Together they add fuel to an already roaring controversy over the role of religious groups in the upcoming election. (Americans United has asked the IRS to look into Falwell's antics.)

Just last month, a memo from the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign called on religious volunteers to perform "22 duties" on behalf of the re-election effort. Among other things, the campaign asked for copies of church directories and recommended the distribution of voter guides to congregants. This advice comes despite the fact that church dissemination of voter guides that  help candidates is a violation of federal tax law and could leave congregations vulnerable to losing their tax exemptions.

This is not Falwell's first attempt to take advantage of his tax-exempt status. In 1993, the IRS required the tax-exempt religious organization that produces Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour television program to pay $50,000 in tax penalties for political activity in 1986 and 1987. (The IRS also revoked Falwell's tax exemption for those years retroactively.) "We want to demonstrate that even the most wealthy and powerful television preachers are not above the law," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, explained to the Associated Press on reporting Falwell's latest chicanery to the IRS.

The high news profile of Falwell's misdeed combined with the angry religious response to the Bush campaign's church outreach will hopefully give pause to efforts to enlist religious groups as part of a partisan political machine. "I certainly hope that this sends a clear message that religious organizations have got to operate within federal tax laws restricting partisan politicking," AU's Lynn told The New York Times. "And I think the message is that the campaign has been reckless in its approach to churches, recklessly trying to lure them into political activities."

Clergy should not risk the tax status of their houses of worship by delving into partisan politics. Separation of church and state exists to prevent just this situation.