Americans United for Separation of Church and State today issued the following statement regarding Internal Revenue Service enforcement of the federal tax law ban on electioneering by houses of worship.
Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Federal tax law forbids churches and other non-profit institutions to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Intervention by churches in elections, either directly or indirectly, is a violation of the IRS Code. However, houses of worship are perfectly free to speak out on public issues, and many do so.
“Clergy, both right and left, must understand these clear rules and obey them. Non-profit status is a privilege, not a right. Turning our nation’s churches into cogs in a political machine violates the integrity of religion and undercuts the fairness of the democratic process. Tax-exempt donations intended for religious and charitable work should not be misused to subsidize partisan politicking.
“It is imperative, however, for the IRS to maintain the highest standards of impartiality in enforcing federal tax law. Any suggestion of partisan bias in enforcement damages the credibility of the tax agency and is absolutely unacceptable.
“In recent months, the IRS has launched an action against All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., for partisan politicking. The investigation focuses on a sermon given two days before the 2004 election. While the news media has dubbed it an ‘anti-war sermon,’ in fact, the subject was the presidential election. The Rev. George Regas, former rector of the church, preached on what Jesus would say to presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush. While the sermon mentioned both Kerry and Bush, it aimed most of its criticism at Bush’s war in Iraq, his policy of pre-emptive military strikes and his proposal to resume development of nuclear weapons. The sermon criticized both Kerry and Bush for failing to talk about assistance for the poor, but singled out Bush’s tax cuts for giving help to the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans.
“I can understand why the IRS might regard this sermon as evidence of campaign intervention. What I cannot understand is why the tax agency did not take the same view about an even more partisan sermon by a Baptist pastor in Arkansas who preached on the successes of George Bush. On July 4, 2004, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of First Baptist Church of Springdale praised Bush for his war on terrorism and his stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, while lambasting Kerry. Floyd even employed the church’s audio-visual system to show large pictures of the candidates in the auditorium while he spoke, using a flattering photo of Bush and a smaller unflattering picture of Kerry. According to a July 21, 2005, report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the IRS has decided not to pursue action against the church for this obvious campaign intervention.
“This decision gives the public the impression that IRS enforcement is at best arbitrary, or at worst, biased.
“In conclusion, let me say this: Religious leaders have every right to speak out on the issues of the day. However, Americans do not need and do not want their houses of worship to become partisan. Electioneering in our pulpits violates federal tax law and threatens our nation with the kind of bitter religious and political divisiveness that has harmed societies around the world.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.