Claims by the Religious Right that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued a letter warning churches that praying for President George W. Bush's re-election is illegal are bogus and utterly without foundation, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
A group called the Christian Defense Coalition claimed yesterday that the IRS had issued a letter warning churches not to pray for Bush's re-election. Such prayers, the IRS supposedly said, would be a violation of federal tax law.
In fact, there is no such letter. Americans United contacted the IRS yesterday, and officials there denied that any such ruling has been issued.
"This is a Religious Right urban legend," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "These scare tactics are an indefensible and unethical demonstration of a win-at-any-cost mentality that has infected too many in the Religious Right these days."
In a conversation yesterday with Americans United's Church & State magazine, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, admitted that the IRS letter does not say churches can't pray for Bush. Mahoney also admitted that he hasn't even seen the letter in question.
Earlier this year, attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice wrote to the IRS on Mahoney's behalf, asking if praying for Bush's re-election in churches would violate federal tax law.
A source who is familiar with the IRS's reply described it as a "form letter" merely acknowledging the inquiry and enclosing a copy of the IRS guidelines for political activity by churches.
Mahoney claims an IRS agent told an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice that praying for Bush's re-election in church would be a violation of federal tax law.
Americans United pointed out that off-the-cuff comments by a single IRS agent reported second hand hardly constitute an official change in tax policy.
The Christian Defense Coalition's claims, Americans United asserts, are an effort to create hysteria in the evangelical community in advance of Tuesday's election.
Asserted Lynn, "The bottom line is that there is no IRS letter telling churches they cannot pray for Bush. To be blunt, the whole story is a bald-faced lie."
Mahoney's claims have been widely reported on conservative websites. Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) issued a press release attacking the IRS for its alleged action.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State 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 the safeguarding religious freedom.