Memphis Blues: Church’s Intervention In Politics Should Spark IRS Action

It’s going to be a long election season, and we’re bound to see more pulpit politicking.

The city of Memphis, Tenn., is in the middle of a municipal election, and a large Baptist church has decided to let everyone know who the true “pro-family” candidates are. Isn’t that special?

Actually, it’s illegal.

The leadership of Bellevue Baptist in Cordova, Tenn., may think they’re being clever. The church doesn’t come right out and post its favored candidates on its website. Instead, the church links to another website that lists three candidates deemed worthy of support.

If the church thinks this one-step-removed partisan political stunt is going to save them, they’re wrong. They are still in violation of the law.

Church officials are angry because a political action committee run by the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) hopes to replace some anti-gay council members with candidates who are friendlier to the cause of gay rights. This is not surprising. It’s what PACs do.

Another PAC could come along and promote the anti-gay slate – but a church cannot. Nevertheless, that’s just what Bellevue Baptist is doing.

“Please access the Family Action Council of Tennessee website (www.familyactiontn.org) and click on the Memphis City Council Elections for a list of those councilmen who have stood strong for our values on this issue and are being strongly opposed by the TEP Political Action Committee,” reads a statement on the church’s website.

When you click on the link, you are informed that the three candidates listed have “stood strong for pro-family values” and lists their accomplishments. Gee, you do you think the church wants you to vote for these guys?

The Internal Revenue Service warns houses of worship about linking to campaign-related sites, noting that choosing to link to another site is a proactive activity. Asserts the IRS, “An organization has control over whether it establishes a link to another site.  When an organization establishes a link to another web site, the organization is responsible for the consequences of establishing and maintaining that link, even if the organization does not have control over the content of the linked site.”

Not all links are a problem, however. A church that wanted to spur civic involvement could urge its members to research all candidates for a given office and link to all of the sites maintained by candidates. It could also link to non-partisan sites that contain unbiased information about candidates.

That’s not what Bellevue Baptist did. It linked to one site that endorsed three candidates. That site happens to be run by a 501 (c)(4) organization that may legally endorse candidates. But the church, as 501 (c)(3) is subject to a different set of rules, one of which prohibits intervention in politics. (The Family Action Council of Tennessee, by the way, is an affiliate of Focus on the Family.)

Yesterday, I was asked by WMCT, a Memphis television station, to comment on this matter. I told the reporter that there’s plenty here for the IRS to look at it. I hope the tax agency does so.

It’s going to be a long election season, and we’re bound to see a lot more of this. The Alliance Defense Fund and other Religious Right organizations are already prodding churches to flagrantly violate the law by endorsing and/or opposing candidates from the pulpit. These groups hope to build a church-based political machine to elect their favored candidates to office. Once in power, these people will pursue a fundamentalist political agenda, work to enact laws that impose their narrow version of faith on all of us and assail the church-state wall.

The Religious Right doesn’t try to hide this game plan, and several groups have been upfront admitting that politicized churches are a key component of it.

Are you listening, Internal Revenue Service?