Wake County, N.C., Sheriff John H. Baker Jr. is a fixture in local politics who for 24 years has repeatedly turned back challengers who covet his job.
It helps that the 6-foot, 7-inch former pro football player is a considerable physical presence; it also helps that he has deep roots in the community. But when election time rolls around, Baker has another weapon at his disposal: dozens of local churches.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported Feb. 24 that Baker, a Democrat, visits 150 predominantly black churches every year. In election years, it's not unusual for pastors to take up special collections on his behalf. Members of the clergy routinely promote Baker's candidacy from the pulpit and allow him to address the congregation, seeking votes.
Speaking to congregants at St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in February, Baker was not shy about asking for support.
"I'm not going to say anything about John Baker the sheriff because you know me," he said. "When you start that evaluation process for political candidates, look at my record. If the record is good, vote for me."
Baker's church-based politicking may be a sure-fire voter getter, but it's not without its drawbacks. For starters, it's a violation of federal law for houses of worship to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. After being alerted to the activity by a county resident who wishes to remain anonymous, Americans United on Feb. 28 asked the Internal Revenue Service to look into the allegations that St. Matthew illegally raised money for Baker and endorsed his candidacy.
"This activity would seem to be a clear violation of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns, issuing statements in favor of candidates and raising money for candidates," Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn wrote to Robert T. Miller, director of the IRS's Exempt Organizations Division.
The resident who brought the matter to AU's attention said rumors have circulated for years about Baker raising money in churches. The man, who said he found out about Americans United's interest in this issue by searching the web, told Church & State he was "astounded that the newspaper printed that much detail, because it lays the foundation for a complaint and investigation."
Continued the resident, "I am very interested and passionate about having fair elections in our country. When one candidate uses unfair tactics, it taints the outcome and leaves many voters apathetic about the process, which further erodes voter participation. The other related issue is that non-profit organizations do not report their contributions like PACs and candidates, which also provides a huge opportunity to cheat the process." St. Matthew may face warnings, fines or even revocation of its tax-exempt status for its partisan activities. But if one member of the U.S. House of Representatives has his way, none of that will happen. Not only will St. Matthew's political activities be protected, they'll be encouraged.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican, wants to change federal tax law to remove the provisions barring houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Jones' is sponsoring legislation, called the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357), that would alter to IRS Code to allow for partisan activities in America's houses of worship.
Jones, a four-term House member who represents parts of Greenville, Goldsboro and the Outer Banks, is upfront about his motives: He was angered over efforts by Americans United to oppose church-based partisan politicking. Specifically, Jones want to end an Americans United effort called "Project Fair Play," which seeks to educate houses of worship about the rules governing electioneering.
To change the law, Jones is working closely with several Religious Right groups. Appearing on TV preacher Pat Robertson's "700 Club" Feb. 27, Jones freely admitted that his bill was drafted by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), Robertson's legal group. On March 6, he appeared along with ACLJ attorney Colby May on TV preacher D. James Kennedy's "Truths That Transform" radio program.
Although Jones introduced the bill last June, it has languished in the House until recently. Thanks to a big push by the Religious Right, the bill is suddenly picking up steam and now has 114 cosponsors all but four of them Republicans. The list includes top GOP House leaders, including Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay. The measure is tentatively scheduled for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee this month.
Jones' staff has clearly asked Religious Right activists to push the bill and they have been happy to comply. Aside from Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, radio counselor James C. Dobson's Focus on the Family has also been promoting the legislation. The Rev. Jerry Falwell's legal group, Liberty Counsel, has come out in favor of the Jones measure, as has Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America. Several web-based right-wing news services have run favorable stories. Jones also says the bill is supported by end-times author Tim LaHaye, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn and the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Stories about the bill have recently appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Why is Jones so eager to open the door to church-based politicking? During appearances on Robertson's TV program and Kennedy's radio show, Jones told the same story that he was angered when a Baptist pastor showed him a copy of a letter Americans United sent to nearly 300,000 houses of worship nationwide shortly before the November 2000 election, outlining federal tax law and advising them about the partisan character of the Christian Coalition's voter guides.
"I actually had a fundamentalist Baptist minister in my district in October of the year 2000 to give me a copy of that letter that was sent out," Jones said on Kennedy's show March 6. "He is a small church pastor, and he has no lawyer to help him, and that just stunned him, that he could lose his status by just saying, 'Bush is pro-life, Gore is pro-choice.'"
But wooing the Religious Right for future political payoff may also be a part of Jones' strategy. Lately the Roman Catholic and one-time Democrat has been working hard to solidify his ties to the Religious Right, which remains a force in the North Carolina GOP. In early October Jones, who has served in the House since 1994, introduced a resolution expressing the sense of the Congress that public schools in the United States should set aside time for children "to pray for, or quietly reflect on behalf of, the Nation during this time of struggle against the forces of international terrorism." He also took care to point out that he has posted the Ten Commandments in his office and supported a House resolution to display them in other government buildings.
In February Jones issued a press release trumpeting the fact that he had been awarded a perfect score on a "Voter Scorecard" produced by the ultra-conservative Family Research Council (FRC). Jones proudly noted that he was the only North Carolina representative to get 100 percent and said, "I am but a foot soldier here in Washington. I am humbled by the Family Research Council's kind recognition." Jones pointed out that he and 26 others in the House who scored 100 would receive special recognition at an FRC ceremony in Washington.
Jones, some political observers believe, aspires to higher office. The Almanac of American Politics reports that some have considered him for a U.S. Senate seat. Jones is not in the running for the seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), but he might have his eye on the slot occupied by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). Edwards won the seat with just 51 percent of the vote in 1998 and may abandon it if, as is widely believed, he decides to run for president in 2004.
Whatever his long-term goals, Jones has clearly won the favor of the Religious Right with his church-politicking bill. But despite his self-proclaimed advocacy of "family values," critics say Jones has not hesitated to resort to distortion in pushing the measure. Specifically, Jones has repeatedly put forth two arguments, both of which, according to Americans United, are specious. He argues that the measure is necessary to protect the free-speech rights of churches, and he asserts that conservative-leaning churches are punished for violations that are overlooked at more liberal congregations.
Neither of these claims can be substantiated, says Americans United. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn says Jones' free speech argument doesn't hold water. Lynn notes that pastors have a clear legal right to address political, social and moral issues. They only thing they may not do, he notes, is back candidates for public office.
Lynn charged that Jones has repeatedly tried to confuse the issue by asserting that the IRS Code prohibits churches from speaking out on political issues. In a Feb. 24 letter to The Washington Times, for example, Jones wrote, "Houses of worship have always, since the Founding, spoken out on issues of the day. Simply because politicians also debate those issues from abortion to the death penalty churches are now required to be quiet because to speak out during an election cycle threatens government sanction and the loss of tax-exemption."
Jones' assertion, Lynn charges, is a red herring. He noted that Americans United has repeatedly pointed out that houses of worship have the right to speak out on abortion, the death penalty or any other issue. What they may not do, he said, is endorse candidates or use church resources to support those seeking political office.
"This is an easy distinction to understand," Lynn said. "I am left to conclude that Jones is deliberately distorting the facts so he can wrap his dangerous bill in the mantle of free speech."
The Rev. Henry Green, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, Md., also finds Jones' claims of stifled ministers unpersuasive.
"In the past four to five weeks, I've taken on Saudi Arabia," Green said. "I have addressed state issues. I have said good things about President Bush, and I have disagreed with President Bush on the issue of faith-based funding. I've taken on all of those issues, and I've not felt one restraint at all about saying those things. It's a canard that they're throwing out. This is a ludicrous argument. It doesn't make any sense at all to me."
While he feels no qualms in addressing issues, Green acknowledges that he can't endorse or oppose candidates as says that's as it should be.
"Our responsibility as a church is to preach the gospel, not to engage in partisan politics," Green told Church & State.
Jones' second claim that Americans United seeks to silence conservative churches through its Project Fair Play is easily debunked, Lynn said. Americans United launched Project Fair Play in 1996. Since that time, the organization has reported to the IRS nearly three dozen houses of worship, religious ministries or religious non-profits accused of endorsing candidates. Some endorsed Republicans and some Democrats. A few cases involve third-party candidates.
"Our project is strictly non-partisan," Lynn said. "Jones' charges are ironic, when one considers that to this day Americans United remains the only national organization that asked the IRS to investigate the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple, which was accused of holding fund-raisers for the Democratic Party that were attended by former Vice President Al Gore."
Lynn also noted that Americans United first got interested in this issue back in 1988, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then seeking the Democratic nomination for president, announced that he would collect campaign contributions in churches during Sunday services. AU alerted the IRS and the media. A spate of negative stories followed, and Jackson quickly dropped the plan.
Nevertheless, Religious Right leaders continue to echo Jones' inaccurate charges. During the "700 Club" interview, Robertson remarked, "It is amazing. There is a double standard. For our friends in the black community, the churches are the central focal point of community activity. So Bill Clinton gets up and preaches in the pulpit and Jesse Jackson takes up collections for political causes and no one seems to do anything about it."
In fact, Americans United has been working to do something about it. In February of 2000, Americans United reported a church in New York City whose pastor, Floyd Flake, endorsed Gore from the pulpit. Flake said IRS agents later visited him, warned him about future political activity and asked him to sign statements promising not to do it again.
At the same time, Americans United has reminded conservative churches that they have no business endorsing Republicans or distributing campaign material on behalf of GOP candidates. Shortly before the November 2000 election, Americans United mailed letters to churches all over the United States urging them not to distribute "voter guides" produced by the Christian Coalition and other Religious Right groups that express clear preference for some candidates over others.
"Our efforts have been non-partisan and fair," Lynn said. "It's time for Jones and his allies in the Religious Right to stop distorting the activities of Americans United. If they can't make a case for this legislation without mischaracterizing the facts, that's probably a good sign that the bill is fatally flawed."
Far from hewing to a double standard, Americans United notes that the IRS usually cuts houses of worship a generous amount of slack in this area. Every year, numerous secular non-profit groups that hold a 501(c)(3) status lose their tax exemptions for inappropriate partisan politicking. As far as observers know, this has happened to a church only once in American history.
In that case, the Church at Pierce Creek, then located outside of Binghamton, N.Y., lost its tax-exempt status for running full-page newspaper ads in October of 1992 advising people not to vote for Bill Clinton. The ads were a brazen example of political intervention, and it's possible they were placed deliberately to test the IRS's willingness to enforce the law. After the church lost its tax-exempt status, Robertson's ACLJ sued in federal court to get it back but lost the case.
Having failed in federal court, Robertson, his attorneys and their allies in the Religious Right now seem eager to change federal law to open the door to church politicking. Can they succeed?
Americans United intends to make sure they don't. Americans United moved quickly as soon as the Jones bill began progressing in the House. AU's Legislative Department is closely monitoring the bill and is working to form a new coalition of religious and public policy groups to oppose it. AU also plans to request an opportunity to testify against the bill.
(A second, similar bill is also pending in the House of Representatives. Called the "Bright-Line Act of 2001," the measure would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow houses of worship and other tax-exempt groups to engage in partisan politicking as long such activity did not exceed 5 percent of the church's or organization's annual budget. Sponsored by Rep. Philip M. Crane, a 16-term Illinois Republican, the bill has only five cosponsors and is unlikely to be given serious consideration this year.)
Involving the religious community will be crucial. While a few pastors don't hesitate to jump head first into partisan politics, most American clergy are wary of pulpit politicking, realizing that such activity can divide congregations and detract from the true mission of the church.
Many conservatives recognize this. In February syndicated columnist Cal Thomas expressed concerns about the Jones bill, writing that a downside of the bill is that "more politicians would be free to come to churches, taking time away from preaching about a kingdom not of this world in favor of earthly salvation."
Continued Thomas, "Churches now may hold political forums at which candidates may speak and answer questions. They are prohibited, however, from endorsing candidates from the pulpit....Some who favor Jones' bill imply that congregants cannot decide for whom to vote without the express endorsement of a minister. That insults the intelligence of those in the pew."
Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, a conservative who often sides with the Religious Right on church-state issues, also seems skeptical. Sparring with Jones on Feb. 7, O'Reilly said, "I don't want to get the churches involved in the political process. I think that there are enough organizations like the B'nai B'rith, the Knights of Columbus, Protestant sects have their own, where, if you want to do that in conjunction with your churchmen, you can."
Constitutional issues aside, some religious leaders and lay people worry that encouraging houses of worship to play a more prominent political role will divide congregations. In many churches, believers in the pew represent a diversity of political opinions, and members could become angry if a church fails to support their favored candidate. This is especially relevant in primary elections, where several candidates might be on the ballot.
Houses of worship also run the risk of being tempted to use the political system to promote parochial interests, which can also be divisive. This occurred recently in El Cajon, Calif., where three local churches were accused of promoting the candidacy of a city council candidate.
The churches erected yard signs for the candidate, Gary Kendrick, and also allowed him to speak from the pulpit. One congregation, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, permitted Kendrick to place campaign literature in the back of the church.
The churches got interested because of a local zoning dispute. One of the churches, Foothills Christian Fellowship, sought permission to relocate to a nearly empty shopping plaza called Towne Center Mall. But the council, which had a vacancy due to a resignation, was evenly divided over the matter, with two members favoring the church's plan and two insisting that the mall be limited to commercial use.
Kendrick, who promised to side with the church in the dispute, campaigned in houses of worship including Foothills Christian Fellowship. On election day, March 6, Kendrick topped a crowded field of eight candidates, capturing 32 percent of the vote. But the controversy over his campaign lingers. Americans United has asked the IRS to look into the actions of Vineyard Christian Fellowship, asserting that the church may have violated the law.
Other instances of possible illegal political activity in churches have attracted AU's attention recently. In Flint, Mich., embattled mayor Woodrow Stanley fought a recall effort by appealing for votes in churches. At the New Jerusalem Full Gospel Baptist Church, Bishop Odis Floyd told a crowd, "This is our mayor. We elected him by due process, and he has a right to stay as long as we elected him....We want this election to be settled by sundown, and we don't want to be squeaking by. So if you're in the city you have to get out and vote." (The church-based effort was unsuccessful, with voters recalling Stanley 56 percent to 44 percent.)
As the primary election season continues and candidates gear up for the general elections in November, Americans United expects to see more instances of church-based politicking. The organization, Lynn said, will continue to educate members of the clergy and other about which activities are legal and which are not.
Lynn noted that Americans United's website (www.au.org) contains a section titled "Churches and Politics" that has in-depth information about this issue. Available documents include a guide for religious leaders, legal memos discussing the legality of church distribution of "voter guides" and previous articles about this topic from Church & State. He urged Americans United members to use these resources.
"It would be a tragic mistake to politicize America's houses of worship," said Lynn. "Members of the clergy have the right to speak out on issues, but they should not tell congregants who to vote for or against or collect money for candidates. Partisan politics is simply not the mission of the faith community."
Green, the Baptist pastor in Maryland, agrees. Even if the Jones bill were to become law and church endorsements were legal, Green said, there are good reasons to avoid them such as unnecessarily fostering divisions in congregations by making members who support other candidates feel unwelcome.
For Green, there are more basic reasons as well.
"It's actually a prostitution of the gospel," said Green. "The mission of the church of Jesus Christ is to advance the kingdom of god. Jesus said, 'Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and render under God that which belongs to God.' The business of the church is not the business of politics. The church has to be a able to speak prophetically to the leaders of this world, and we prostitute the prophetic voice of the church when we engage the church in partisan politics."