Every other year during election season, Americans United reminds clergy nationwide to stay out of partisan politics.

Most religious leaders have no problem respecting the federal tax code’s prohibition against campaign intervention by houses of worship and other non-profits that are tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

But we feel the need to issue a regular reminder in part to counter a torrent of misinformation from the Religious Right, which, in some cases, actively encourages clergy to defy the law. Unfortunately plenty of pastors take this bad advice and openly endorse candidates for office.

So earlier this month, AU sent more than 84,000 letters to a wide range of denominations from across the theological spectrum and the political spectrum. (Yes, this includes non-Christians.)

We merely want houses of worship to follow the rules, stay out of partisan politics and keep their tax exemption. And when we explain to clergy what the law requires, we do so in a respectful way. We also noted that it is the Internal Revenue Service– not Americans United –that decides whether or not a church should lose its tax exemption.

You wouldn’t know that, however, from some of the nasty responses we got in return. Over the past few weeks, Americans United received dozens of letters from pastors who seem to think a friendly reminder to obey the law is really a threatening attempt to muzzle conservative congregations. It is truly remarkable how much anger seems to have been generated just by asking churches to follow the rules.

A religious leader in Charleston, S.C., suggested we “drop dead.” A Catholic priest in Virginia told us to “… shove [the letter] up your fat, white a**.” (Dude, do you preach with that mouth?)

Two clergy members scrawled notes in red pens; one dared us to “come and get me.” A Baptist preacher in North Carolina told us off rather creatively: He tore our letter into little pieces and mailed it back.

Then there were those ministers who clearly ignored the point of the letter, stating that they planned to risk the tax exemption of their churches by telling their congregations how to vote.

“We absolutely plan to warn who to vote for and who not to vote for per Biblical principles,” said a pastor in New York.  

A church leader in South Carolina defiantly declared: “Just so you will know I will be standing in my pulpit and telling my people that the Democratic Party has been taken over by Satanists and telling them that there is no way they can be true to God and the Bible and vote for a Democrat. I will name candidates and tell the truth about each as I see it. I will do so without the least bit if (sic) intimidation by you or the IRS. The only one I fear is God.”

Still another in Memphis said: “We publish voter guides that encourage members to vote for candidates who support issues consistent with our faith.” Sometimes church voter guides are genuinely unbiased, but more often than not they are thinly veiled partisan packets. We suspect it’s the latter given this pastor also claimed erroneously, “The Founders stated that only Christians should be elected to leadership in government.” (He also spent $6.15 in postage to include a bunch of materials regurgitating long-discredited “Christian nation” folderol.)

Others assumed, incorrectly, that we mailed only to conservative congregations. For one email writer, who identified himself only as “John Jones,” the devil is truly in the details of our letter.

“I am not aware that you are sending out these letters to other religions,” “Jones” said. “The devil has you in his grasp. We will pray for you!”

A letter-writer in Carol Stream, Ill., accused us of being “cowardly,” which is ironic since he or she failed to identify him or herself. The writer also assumed we get paid by President Barack Obama.

“How much does Obama pay you to send out cowardly letters such as this one!?” the writer asked.

An anonymous letter writer from Wichita said we should target minority congregations for potential violations of IRS rules.

“When I see you begin to prosecute the black churches who give Democratic candidates the pulpit to advance their campaigns I will believe your letter,” our correspondent wrote. “Until then stop the rhetoric of intimidation.”

The irony is, AU’s anti-church politicking project actually grew out of a plot by churches to raise money for a Democratic candidate. Back in 1988, a group of churches planned to collect money for then-Democratic presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson. We got wind of the ploy and warned those churches not to act like one of Jackson’s political action committees.

But that’s not all. In 2008, we reported to the IRS when the General Baptist State Convention hosted an event in Raleigh, N.C., that appeared to be a rally for then-presidential candidate Obama, featuring his wife, Michelle. In 2009, we reported the Fifth Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., because it invited a Democratic gubernatorial candidate to speak during services. The pastor told his congregation, “Brian is right on guns. He’s right on affirmative action. He’s right on taxes. He’s right on jobs. I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m just telling you who I’m voting for. I’m voting for Brian Moran.”  

Even though we are clearly out to make sure everyone plays by the rules, regardless of their political affiliation, a lot of pastors and their followers just don’t get what AU’s letters are about. One especially litigious woman, who identified herself only as “Mary Brown,” seemed bent on suing us.

“I am reporting your letter to my church as a violation of campaign ethics to the FEC (Federal Election Commission)… I am also investigating the possibility of a lawsuit on behalf of ALL churches who received your letter because you are violating their First Amendment rghts (sic)!"

Unfortunately for Ms. Brown, no one’s First Amendment rights are violated simply by receiving an informational letter. Most of us get unsolicited mail on a daily basis.

While it’s difficult to say how many of the 84,000 plus houses of worship that received our letter plan to obey the law, one pastor informed us that he understands what the tax code does and does not allow – albeit in a letter dripping with sarcasm.

“I am certain that being separated from everyday life up in Washington, as you are, you had nothing better to do but to worry about our small congregation in Georgia,” a Baptist minister in Georgia wrote. “Allow me to put your mind at ease. I can promise you that neither I nor any of my church leaders will be persuading, cajoling, influencing, swaying, threatening, interfering, enticing, wheedling, coaxing, incentivizing, guiding, controlling, shaping, affecting, effecting, altering, bribing, compelling, impacting, manipulating, inclining, seducing, selling, or deciding for anyone their vote.”  

At least he gets it. We’ll call that a win.