Nov 04, 2002

Church endorsements of political candidates in Texas and Maryland should be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.In letters to the IRS Nov. 4, Americans United cited two reports of church electioneering at Sunday services last weekend.Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Federal tax law is clear: Churches and other tax-exempt organizations may not intervene in elections on behalf of candidates."Church personnel and resources are supposed to be used for religious and charitable purposes," continued Lynn, "not electioneering."Americans United told the IRS that details from the two incidents clearly merit attention from tax authorities.In Texas, the Rev. Joe Samuel Ratliff, pastor of the Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, endorsed the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate during services at the church Nov. 3. According to the Dallas Morning News, Ratliff urged his 8,000-member congregation to help candidate Ron Kirk make history."Go up and down the ballot and vote your conscience," Ratliff reportedly said. "But in that race, vote for Ron Kirk."The pastor's clear and unequivocal endorsement of Kirk came at the same service where the candidate himself was allowed to address the congregation and appeal for votes."The race is winnable," Kirk reportedly told the congregation. "If you go vote, the polls don't matter."The second incident of church electioneering occurred in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The Washington Post reported that From the Heart Church Ministries hosted a pre-election campaign appearance by the Democratic candidate for governor at which the church pastor issued an appeal to the congregation to vote Democratic.According to the newspaper, gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend visited the 24,000-member congregation Nov. 3 as part of a campaign swing through four churches in Prince George's County.In conjunction with the visit, the Rev. John A. Cherry, the church pastor, urged the congregation to follow a partisan course in the election two days later. Mimicking the flip of a voting booth lever, he reportedly said, "I don't care what your persuasion is, you need to pull out your Democratic finger.""If it sounds like I'm endorsing," he added, "take it as you want to."The IRS has a "zero tolerance" policy for violations of tax law. In 1995, the federal agency revoked the tax exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York after the church paid for newspaper advertisements against presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. The revocation was later upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.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.