Religious Right activists say they are deeply concerned about the First Amendment rights of religious leaders, but if there is so much concern for those houses of worship, why are clergy being advised to jeopardize their churches’ tax-exempt status?

Take Liberty Counsel, a group affiliated with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University. In a video posted last week on YouTube (a partial transcript is also available), Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said his organization will be distributing 100,000 copies of a DVD and written-material program called “Silence Is Not An Option.”

That program encourages pastors to plunge into politics, even though doing so circumvents the Internal Revenue Code.

Staver knows he’s on weak ground legally when it comes to this issue, so he had to twist the truth as part of his ongoing attempt to turn churches into cogs in a partisan political machine.

For the second time this month, Staver said no church has ever lost its tax exemption by endorsing or opposing a candidate for office. This is blatantly untrue, and it’s a matter of public record.

As my colleague Rob Boston noted a few weeks ago, the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., was stripped of its tax-exempt status after it ran newspaper ads telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992.

Staver also tried to argue that churches are somehow different from other tax-exempt organizations purely because they don’t have to register with the Internal Revenue Service and are effectively beyond the reach of IRS enforcement. While he’s right about the filing requirements for churches, any attorney who deals with non-profit tax issues will tell you that Staver is wrong about the rest.

Just because a church never registered with the IRS, doesn’t mean it isn’t subject to federal tax law. The IRS has the power to revoke tax exemption whether a church is registered or not. The tax agency can also levy other penalties, including fines for the offending institution and its leaders.

Surely Staver knows this. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Old Time Gospel Hour lost its tax exemption for two years for partisan political intervention and had to pay $50,000 for its scofflaw ways. I guess Staver decided not to mention that off-message fact.

In the Liberty Counsel video, Staver and his sidekick Matt Barber complain that Americans United and other “anti-theist” groups are spreading disinformation about the mandates of federal tax law.

In fact, Americans United – are we the only “anti-theist” organization headed by a United Church of Christ minister? – regularly sends out informational letters to clergy with accurate information about this issue. We’ll be doing so again this year. (We also maintain a Project Fair Play website with a wealth of information about religious institutions and politics.)

All we want is for churches to know the law and obey it – or give up their tax exemption. That is not too much to ask. Unless you’re Staver, who thinks religious organizations should have the right to pick and choose the laws they follow without giving up the valuable gift of tax exemption.

If a church listens to Staver and helps get Religious Right-approved candidates elected to office, then Staver will have accomplished his goal. If that same church also loses its tax exemption in the process, to him that’s just collateral damage.

Churches need to ask themselves – if someone who claims to be on their side is also asking them to risk their tax exemption, is that person looking out for church interests or his own?