Jan 16, 2008

A full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal today offers grossly inaccurate information about church-based partisan politicking, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

A Wisconsin church and a Religious Right legal group claim in the ad that the Internal Revenue Service is misinterpreting federal tax law to censor sermons about political figures and political issues. The Becket Fund placed the ad on behalf of Pastor Kenneth D. Taylor of Calvary Assembly of God Church in Algoma, Wisc.

In the ad, which takes the form of an open letter, Taylor mocks the IRS and dares the federal agency to investigate his church for a supposedly political sermon he delivered in 2006.

Americans United says the ad is based on inaccurate information and could lead unwary religious groups to violate federal tax law, encounter fines and lose their tax exemptions.

“Churches are perfectly free to talk about issues,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn. “But they are not free to abuse their tax exemptions and endorse political candidates. This ad could mislead clergy into deep tax trouble.

“The Becket Fund ought to be ashamed of itself,” Lynn continued. “The lawyers at Becket may think this ad is a cute stunt, but it really isn’t. This issue concerns the integrity of our houses of worship and fairness in the political process. This isn’t something to trifle with.”

Recently, the Becket Fund has expressed an interest in challenging the IRS regulations in court.

Lynn noted, however, that a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously in May of 2000 that the IRS Code is constitutional, stating that since tax exemption is a benefit, the federal government has the right to place conditions on its receipt.

“Becket Fund lawyers are free to take this matter into court,” said Lynn, “but they will lose. The matter has already been settled.”

According to Lynn, the Becket Fund’s suggestion that the IRS cannot and will not enforce federal law is false. He cited the following examples:

  • The Church at Piece Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., lost its tax-exempt status for placing newspaper ads attacking candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. The church filed a lawsuit to get its status back but lost in court.

  • TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network was stripped of its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 for supporting Robertson’s presidential bid. CBN was required to make a “significant payment” to the IRS, pledge to avoid partisan campaign activities in the future, place more outside directors on its board and implement other organizational and operational changes to ensure tax law compliance.

  • The late Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour lost its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 after a four-year IRS audit determined that the ministry had diverted money to a political action committee. The ministry agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 in taxes for those years and to change its organizational structure so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.

  • Houston’s Second Baptist Church had to undergo a lengthy IRS audit after the church was reported for sponsoring a special project designed to encourage members to attend a GOP precinct convention with the aim of electing certain individuals to local committees.

  • The Rev. Floyd Flake, pastor of Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, was visited by IRS agents and asked to sign documents stating that he would issue no more church endorsements after he endorsed Al Gore from the pulpit in 2000.

  • Nearly four dozen houses of worship received written warnings from the IRS about political activity in 2004 and 2006, the IRS has reported. Several other cases are ongoing, under a new IRS project called the “Political Activities Compliance Initiative.”

Lynn asserted that the Becket Fund ad is part of a Religious Right initiative to persuade religious leaders to politicize their churches and help elect conservative candidates. He pointed out that polls show that most Americans oppose pulpit-based politicking.

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.