Religious groups that intervene in partisan political campaigns are risking their tax-exempt status, according to a national church-state watchdog group.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the United Baptist Missionary Convention, a Baltimore church group that promised to aid the reelection effort of Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in return for taxpayer funding of various church-sponsored projects.
The Washington Post reports that the Rev. John L. Wright, then president of the convention, wrote to Glendening last year, saying, "Our organization, the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland, is prepared to play a leading and decisive role in your reelection bid...The convention has an economic development agenda which cannot be implemented without the help of your administration."
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."
Observes the Lynn letter, "This would appear to be a clear-cut case of a religious organization stepping over the line and illegally involving itself in a partisan political campaign."
Americans United contacted the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland this morning, and a representative claimed that the group was a tax-exempt organization with tax-deductible donations.
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. They may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office, give money to campaigns or help candidates win election.
Lynn said the tax rules are not ambiguous and that the convention, which represents 175 churches, has clearly stepped over the line. "This isn't even a close call," remarked Lynn. "In this case, the religious group put into writing that it planned to help with the governor's reelection campaign."
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.
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.