November 2011 Church & State | People & Events

A Tennessee church that intervened in a local election should be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, says Americans United.

Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., posted on its website a special statement headlined, “Important Pro-Family Information on the Memphis City Council Election Oct. 6.”

The statement noted that a council election was under way and that candidates had taken different positions on a proposed gay rights ordinance.

“We are asking our people to become fully informed,” the church statement said, “before voting for city council members by being aware of candidates who have supported treating ALL employees equally and do not want to put additional burden on any employer by granting certain employees a special civil rights status based on sexual preferences or gender identity/expression.”

The page contained a link to a website run by Family Action of Tennessee that identified three council candidates who “stood strong for pro-family values.”

AU noted that the church statement contains the following passage: “Some members have inquired regarding Bellevue’s tax-exempt status. Please know that we are fully aware of the law granting tax-exempt status to churches.”

In its Sept. 29 letter to the IRS, AU asserted that this is an indication that the church leadership is well aware of the law and what it requires – and chose to violate it anyway.

AU also pointed out that Family Action of Tennessee is a 501(c)(4) organization that may legally endorse candidates. But the church, AU wrote, has a different tax status and is barred from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.

The Internal Revenue Service has warned houses of worship about linking to campaign-related sites, noting that choosing to link to another site is a proactive activity.

An IRS publication states, “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.”

After the church’s actions were reported in the media, officials there removed the direct link to Family Action of Tennessee from the church’s website.