The Rev. Lawrence W. Wright, pastor of New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Wilmington, Del., may end up spending the next several years on probation or even in prison if he's found guilty of a crime that shocked many in his congregation: squandering nearly $150,000 in taxpayer funds to feed his addiction to gambling.
Wright faces 19 charges, including bribery and money laundering. His church received the taxpayer money in 1999 and 2000 to provide services for senior citizens, establish a bus transportation program for parishioners and fix a sidewalk in front of the church. Wright is accused of losing nearly all of it during late-night trips to casinos and using it to pay off gambling debts. Only about $10,000 was ever spent on social services.
The scandal surrounding Wright's actions has grabbed headlines in Wilmington, but one interesting question has been a bit overlooked: How did a church get its hands on so much taxpayer money in the first place?
The answer is found in a cozy arrangement between Wright and a local politician. The late Al O. Plant Sr., a state representative, got support from Wright and his church. In turn, Wright got access to public funds.
Many Americans would say a deal like that stinks to high heaven. They might also think it's unusual and it is. But if certain members of Congress have their way, backroom wheeling and dealing between pastors and politicians may become much more common.
Right now, one thing stands in the way of church-based politicking: Federal tax law. Since 1954, the Internal Revenue Code has explicitly barred all non-profit organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Religious Right groups have been itching to change the law, and they may be one step closer to that goal. On May 14, the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing on two bills that would alter the tax code to allow more church intervention in politicking.
The leading proposal, the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357), is sponsored by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.). Jones has said he introduced the measure because he was angry over educational mailings Americans United has undertaken in the past to inform houses of worship about the problems of church-based politicking. (See "Politicizing the Pulpit," April 2002 Church & State.)
Jones' bill has 116 cosponsors in the House. A second measure, Rep. Philip M. Crane's "Bright-line Act of 2002" (H.R. 2931) has far fewer and is considered much less likely to move this year. Most of the discussion at the hearing centered on the Jones bill.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was invited to testify. Lynn told the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), that the bills would not promote free speech in churches but rather would turn houses of worship into cogs in political machines.
"The bills before you today would scrap a time-tested system and substitute a reckless experiment in mixing religion and partisan politics," Lynn said. "Make no mistake, these bills are not about 'free speech'; instead, they would promote the corruption of the church and the political process."
Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, also advised House members that the vast majority of religious leaders in America do not support this change in the tax code. The Jones bill, he noted, was drafted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and has been aggressively pushed by other Religious Right leaders, among them Florida televangelist D. James Kennedy. (Kennedy and ACLJ attorney Colby M. May also testified before the subcommittee.)
Observed Lynn, "TV preachers and their special interest groups want to turn America's churches into a powerful political machine and undermine the principle of church-state separation. Lawyers for Pat Robertson are out front pushing this legislation. And D. James Kennedy, who is here today to express support for the bill, has repeatedly said he believes church-state separation is a 'lie' and that he wants to 'reclaim America for Christ.' If these activists are successful, the consequences would be devastating for the nation's tradition of pluralism and religious liberty."
Kennedy, testifying immediately after Lynn, asserted that churches had the right to address political issues for 340 years, until Lyndon Johnson, as a U.S. senator in 1954, amended the tax code to bar non-profit groups from endorsing political candidates.
"He decided to silence them," Kennedy said. "He took away what churches had enjoyed for 340 years." Kennedy went on to add that many pastors he talks to say they are afraid to address any political issue for fear that "the IRS will open a new file on them."
But other panelists pointed out that members of the clergy have a clear right to address political issues from the pulpit, noting that the only thing they are barred from doing is endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Brenda Girton-Mitchell, associate general secretary for public policy and director of the Washington Office of the National Council of Churches, told the subcommittee that denominations in the NCC have a long history of speaking out on issues that concern them.
"We and our members have preached, written, marched, applauded, protested and above all prayed for Congress and for legislation and have found that the current legal system serves us well," she said.
Steven T. Miller, director of the Exempt Organizations Division for the IRS, also noted during his testimony that houses of worship are only prohibited from intervening in political campaigns and are not barred from addressing issues. Under further questioning from Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), Miller listed some activities churches can sponsor, among them hosting debates between candidates, holding voter registration drives and transporting voters to the polls.
Some subcommittee members made it clear that they do not believe churches are being stifled. Noting church involvement in issues like civil rights, the Vietnam War and the anti-abortion movement, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) asserted, "It's certainly not as though the churches have been constricted from addressing the moral issues of our time." He added that he believes that pastors in the "Elmer Gantry model" want to change the law because they have "an agenda."
Some subcommittee members also seemed skeptical of claims by Kennedy that the IRS spies on churches and swoops in immediately any time a pastor promotes a political candidate. Just the opposite appears to be the case. Questioned about the matter by Rep. Karen L. Thurman (D-Fla.), the IRS's Miller reported that during the 48 years the "no politicking" rule has been in effect, only two churches have had their tax exemption revoked.
The IRS, Miller told the subcommittee, favors "correction rather than revocation" that is, the agency informs pastors of the law and gives them a second chance before taking away a church's tax exemption. (New York's Church at Pierce Creek, one of the two churches to lose its tax exemption, had that action taken in part because its pastor adamantly refused to say he would not violate the law again.)
Several subcommittee members also pointed out that the majority of religious groups in the country oppose changing the tax law. The NCC, for example, consists of 36 Protestant denominations, encompassing Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran bodies, among others.
Other religious denominations have made their stance known. Several submitted statements of opposition for the record, among them the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Islamic Supreme Council of America and Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist body. (Only one major religious denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has endorsed the Jones bill.)
Supporters of the legislation arranged to have a black Baptist minister, the Rev. Walter Fauntroy of New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., speak on behalf of the bill to create the impression of support in the African-American community. Fauntroy, who formerly served as D.C.'s non-voting delegate to Congress but now often works with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, several times invoked the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, insisting that pulpit endorsements are necessary to further the cause of social and economic justice.
But Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) a veteran of the civil rights movement, challenged Fauntroy on the need for pulpit endorsements.
"We need to maintain this strong, solid wall, this separation of church and state," Lewis said. "I knew Martin Luther King; he was a friend of mine. He never, to my knowledge, endorsed a political candidate."
Americans United is monitoring both pieces of legislation and will keep members informed of any new developments. AU remains convinced that the bills are unnecessary and in fact dangerous.
As Lynn told the subcommittee, "Ultimately, these proposals to change federal tax law offer a solution to a problem that does not exist. These bills would create a so-called 'benefit' that America's religious community does not need, does not want and has not requested. I therefore urge this committee to reject these proposals."