October 2012 Church & State | Featured

To Don Hinkle, director of pub­lic policy for the Missouri Baptist Convention, only “righteous” candidates are worthy of public office.

“We want government leaders who are righteous and who will pass righteous laws that serve the common good and bring glory to Jehovah God who established government and is Sovereign,” Hinkle wrote in a May 2012 edition of The Pathway, the official publication of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

There is certainly nothing unusual about that statement given the source, but as is often the case, Hinkle just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He went on to endorse not one, but two candidates for office.

“This is why,” he continued, “I personally support candidates like U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican who wants to challenge Democrat Claire McCaskill for her U.S. Senate seat, and Republican Ed Martin, the St. Louis attorney who is running for state attorney general. I support them because they view many of the critical issues the same way I do and in a way that is consistent with God’s Word.”

Since Hinkle is a high-ranking official with a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, which is prohibited by federal law from endorsing candidates for public office, Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service on Aug. 23 to investigate whether the Missouri Baptist Convention’s tax exemption should be revoked. 

The MBC declined to comment about the conflict to mainstream media but defended Hinkle’s action with right-wing allies. Rob Phillips, an MBC spokesman, told OneNewsNow that the U.S. Constitution allows individuals and organizations to opine on cultural matters.

“We see Don’s column simply as his opinion in our publication, and our publication is known for providing information to Missouri Baptists about God and how he’s at work through his people,” Phillips said. “It expresses a biblical worldview on moral and social issues… so, we think we have a strong defense in that regard.”

Phillips went on to say that Hinkle’s endorsement was not actually an endorsement.

“We clearly understand the legal ramifications of endorsing candidates, so we do not do that,” he told OneNewsNow. “But we do speak very clearly to Missouri Baptists on issues that are of social and moral importance, and certainly those come up from time to time involving candidates and elected officials.”

Americans United has often noted that federal law clearly prohibits tax-exempt institutions from using their staff, their publications and other resources to support candidates for public office. Hinkle’s use of the state denomination’s newspaper constitutes an official endorsement.

“This is a misuse of religion for partisan political ends,” Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said in a statement at the time of AU’s complaint. “I believe the IRS should launch an immediate investigation. When church-goers put their money in the collection plate, they don’t expect it to be diverted to political purposes.”

The MBC’s lack of understanding of what tax-exempt organizations can and cannot do when it comes to political involvement is far from unique. On Sept. 7, Americans United reported to the IRS the Church of Saint Catherine of Siena in New York City because it endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in its church bulletin.

The church’s Sept. 2 bulletin contained a column by the Rev. John Farren, a member of the congregation’s pastoral staff. Titled “From Father Farren, O.P.,” the essay reprinted an appeal by several former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican calling on Catholics to vote for Romney.

The ambassadors’ appeal, which Farren reproduced in full, criticizes the Obama administration and concludes, “We urge our fellow Catholics, and indeed all people of good will, to join with us in this full-hearted effort to elect Governor Mitt Romney as the next President of the United States.”

On Sept. 10, Americans United reported another church to the IRS for engaging in political activities. St. Raphael Catholic Church in El Paso, Texas, ran a notice in an Aug. 5 church bulletin that read, “I am asking all of you to go to the polls and be united in replacing our present president with a president that will respect the Catholic Church in this country. Please pass this on to all of your Catholic friends.”

Such incidents show why it is so important for Americans United to continue education and outreach in this area. AU wants to make sure that houses of worship both understand and obey the law prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from engaging in partisan politics.

In early September, Americans United sent letters to more than 60,000 congregations in all 50 states in order to inform them that while they may “speak out on religious, moral and political issues,” they “are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office and may not intervene directly or indirectly in partisan campaigns.”

The letters, signed by AU’s Lynn, also pointed out that tax-exempt organizations are free to sponsor voter registration drives and candidate forums if they are legitimately non-partisan.

Lynn went on to suggest that congregations be skeptical of “voter guides” because they “are often thinly veiled partisan materials” and that the IRS may penalize a house of worship that distributes a partisan guide rather than the group that produced it.

Lynn also noted that despite some rumors, the IRS does enforce the rule against electioneering. This was exemplified by the 1995 revocation of a Binghamton, N.Y., church’s tax exemption. The congregation took out a full-page ad in USA Today  in 1992 encouraging people not to vote for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

A federal appeals court later upheld that revocation, Lynn noted.

The AU letters were sent to congregations from a wide variety of denominations and faith traditions, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Southern Baptist Convention, the United Church of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as mosques and synagogues.

Lynn said the letters are vital this election season because multiple groups have already begun to spread misinformation about what houses of worship can and cannot do when it comes to politics.

In August, Liberty Counsel, which is affiliated with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, issued a press release that claimed no church had ever lost its tax exemption for politicking.

“Pastors and churches have a lot of freedom to address Biblical and moral issues, to educate people about the candidates, and to encourage people to vote,” Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said in the release. “Not one church has ever lost its tax exemption for endorsing or opposing candidates or for supporting or opposing local, state or federal laws.”

In fact, other religious organizations besides the church in Binghamton have been punished by the IRS for unlawful political intervention, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Old Time Gospel Hour and television preacher 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. In 1993, the IRS also revoked the tax exemption of one of Falwell’s organizations, the Liberty Federation, because it wasn’t operating purely for religious or charitable purposes.

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.

Liberty Counsel is not the only group spreading dubious advice to churches. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is again sponsoring its annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an event that encourages pastors to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit.

The political intervention is orchestrated by the ADF, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Religious Right legal outfit founded by TV and radio preachers. (The group was formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund.)

The ADF claims more than 475 pastors in 46 states and Puerto Rico participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in 2011, and a similar level of participation can be expected for this year’s edition, scheduled for Oct. 7.

“The ADF is brazenly encouraging illegal activity with its so-called ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ in order to advance its own agenda,” Lynn told Church & State. “Politicking is not the sort of thing that most Americans want from their churches, and it must stop.”

Polls consistently show that Americans don’t want politics in the pulpit. The Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life recently reported that 66 percent of respondents oppose churches or other houses of worship endorsing political candidates.

That is a slight increase from similar surveys taken by Pew in both 2004 and 2007. Even white evangelicals, the core constituency of the Religious Right, oppose church endorsements 56 percent to 36 percent in the most recent poll. 

Americans United has been fighting church politicking for years. While it cannot be said for sure how many churches have thought twice about candidate endorsements because of AU’s efforts, it is clear that previous mailings riled the feathers of the Religious Right.

One of AU’s earlier letters warning religious organizations about candidate endorsement certainly got the attention of the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, a Staten Island, N.Y.-based organization that opposes all abortion and euthanasia.

In a September letter seeking donations, Pavone quoted one of AU’s letters, calling it “truly alarming and extremely intimidating.”  

“As a priest, I can tell you that that seemingly ‘helpful’ two-page letter is frightening,” Pavone wrote. “Does it mean they’ll lose their tax-exempt status if they talk about abortion and the election and voting their pro-life convictions?

“The simple fact of the matter is that the IRS is big on confusing words, but small on enforcement,” Pavone continued. “Not a single church has been taxed because a preacher spoke out on the moral obligations of candidates, or preached on the issues that also happen to be debated by politicians. Not one!”

Pavone is not only misleading pastors about IRS enforcement, he is engaging in misdirection by defending the right of churches to discuss social issues – something that no one has said they can’t do.

“Father Pavone seems to think that Am­ericans United is trying to intimidate and confuse churches into silence, which is simply not true,” Lynn said. “We have never said that houses of wor­ship cannot discuss social and poli­tical issues – we just want to make sure they don’t jump into partisan politics.”

Americans United is always monitoring church electioneering very close­ly, and if you have evidence of a church indulging in partisan politics, please tell us at: www.projectfair­play.org.