Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the New Psalmist Baptist Church after the church hosted what appeared to be a Democratic Party rally during Sunday services.
Several news media reports, including stories in The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, explain that President Bill Clinton's speech at the Nov. 1 services represented a plea to boost Democratic voter turnout and an implicit endorsement of Maryland Governor Parris Glendening (D).
Clinton's comments came just two days before the election, with exclusively Democratic candidates (including Glendening) in attendance at the church. These factors suggest that the church crossed the line that forbids religious institutions from engaging in partisan politicking.
Clinton told congregation members that they could take credit for the successes of Democratic officials. "If you think of the good things that Maryland, under Governor Glendening's leadership has pioneered, educational reform and environmental protections," Clinton said, "you did that."
News media reports added that the Rev. Walter Thomas, a pastor at the church, told the congregation he considered this election a "spiritual war," and advised his congregation that they should "quit rolling over and playing dead."
In a formal complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service today, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn urged a "prompt and full investigation into this matter" and said the tax agency should "assess penalties as you see fit."
Houses of worship and other non-profit organizations that hold a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status are not permitted to intervene in partisan campaigns for public office, either directly or indirectly. At a minimum, the political rally at the Baltimore church constituted an indirect endorsement of Glendening and the Democratic ticket in Maryland, according to Americans United.
Americans United has sent letters to thousands of churches all over the country this year, advising them not to violate federal tax law. The group also urged churches not to distribute biased and distorted "voter guides" published by the Christian Coalition and other organizations.