It seems that one person’s information is another person’s intimidation.
Several weeks ago, Americans United sent 60,000 letters to houses of worship nationwide urging them not to endorse political candidates this election season. We didn’t do that because we were bored – we did it because we’ve seen an uptick in Religious Right efforts to enlist churches into partisan politics.
Federal tax law bars campaign intervention by houses of worship and other nonprofits that claim exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. We want to make sure that everyone knows the law and rejects the Religious Right’s misguided appeals. Americans United sees absolutely nothing sinister about asking Americans to play by the rules.
Somehow the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right organization founded by radio and TV preachers, doesn’t quite get AU’s point. ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said Americans United is attempting to silence pastors through fear.
“For years now, [Americans United] has attempted to intimidate churches into silence during election season,” Stanley said. “But here’s the problem. AU is using an unconstitutional law to try and intimidate and scare churches.”
This is all part of the ADF’s campaign of deception. Since 2008, the ADF has encouraged pastors to participate in a stunt called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The annual event, the ADF claims, features “bold pastors preaching biblical Truth about candidates and elections from their pulpits.”
“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” – scheduled this year on Oct. 7 – isn’t really about that, of course. What is it about is convincing pastors to endorse candidates and spark an Internal Revenue Service investigation. ADF lawyers want the IRS to revoke a church’s tax exemption, so they can sue and try to have the ban on church election intervention overturned.
If the ban is struck down, the Religious Right would then be able to use fundamentalist churches as cogs in a political machine on behalf of their favored candidates.
Maybe the ADF lawyers are upset with Americans United’s educational efforts because they are intimidated by the truth. If the church electioneering ban is “fuzzy” and unconstitutional, as they claim, how come it has been upheld by the federal courts?
The IRS keeps silent on most enforcement actions, but we know that at least three religious organizations have been punished for violating tax law. This includes a church in Binghamton, N.Y., that opposed candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 (and lost its tax exemption) as well as the late Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour and the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
Falwell was slapped with a $50,000 tax bill for partaking in political activity in 1986 and 1987, and the Old Time Gospel Hour had its tax exemption revoked for those years. As for Robertson, his Christian Broadcasting Network was issued a heavy fine by the IRS for its partisan political activity, including the loss of its exempt status for 1986 and 1987. Robertson fought that fine for a dozen years before he finally settled the matter.
The Binghampton church, with Robertson’s legal help, took its tax revocation to federal court and lost. Falwell and Robertson would have done so as well had they not known it was a losing proposition.
The other truth being ignored by the ADF is that Americans overwhelmingly say they don’t want partisan politics in the pulpit. The latest poll to bear this out comes from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which reported recently that two-thirds of Americans oppose houses of worship endorsing political candidates. (Even white evangelicals – the Religious Right’s putative base – oppose church endorsements 56 percent to 36 percent.)
So if you add all of this up, you can see that the ADF is a dishonest organization playing fast and loose with the tax exemptions of churches in order to gain power and control elections.
At least Americans United is up front about its goals and mission – the same cannot be said for the ADF.
(If you have evidence that a pastor endorsed or opposed a political candidate from the pulpit, please let us know at http://projectfairplay.org/)