When U.S. Senate candidate Erskine Bowles won the endorsement of 11 prominent black ministers in North Carolina, he couldn't wait to spread the news. In an Aug. 30 press release, Bowles' campaign trumpeted the development, noting that the pastors had signed an open letter to fellow church leaders that urged them to back Bowles.
"Erskine is the candidate to defeat Elizabeth Dole and get the job done, but we need to get the job done for him," read the letter. "Please encourage your congregation to support Erskine in both the September 10th primary and the general election on November 5th."
That last line raised more than a few eyebrows. In a lengthy piece that ran Sept. 5, The Carolinian, an African-American newspaper published in Raleigh, pointed out that any pastor who endorses Bowles from the pulpit would be running afoul of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines.
One of the letter's signers, Bishop C.E. Anderson Sr., pastor of Sherman Memorial Church in Charlotte and an official with the Church of God In Christ, expressed surprise to learn that church endorsements of political candidates are unlawful.
"You mean I can't ask people to support somebody?" Anderson said. Anderson admitted to The Carolinian that he has been issuing endorsements for years and added, "I don't know when this came out. I never heard of this."
The provision, in fact, has been part of the Internal Revenue Code since 1954. The IRS has frequently issued statements reminding all non-profit groups which includes houses of worship that they may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. The law is designed to prevent candidates from abusing tax-free organizations for partisan ends.
Most religious leaders don't intervene in partisan politics, and polls show Americans overwhelmingly back the concept behind the IRS regulation. But the issue has become more prominent and controversial lately because of a concerted effort by Religious Right groups to amend the tax laws and do away with the law but only for houses of worship.
U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) has introduced what he calls the "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357), legislation that would allow houses of worship to endorse or oppose candidates and intervene in partisan campaigns in other ways.
Originally introduced in June 2001, Jones' bill languished in Congress for months and looked to be a dead letter. Earlier this year, however, it began picking up legislative momentum and, as Church & State went to press, was due for a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.
How did the bill go from obscurity to fast track? Observers in Washington say it came in a large part thanks to a steady drumbeat of pressure from Religious Right organizations and a well-coordinated effort among right-wing media outlets.
In a carefully choreographed, well-funded effort, leaders of national Religious Right organizations repeatedly attacked the IRS provision as a violation of the freedom of speech and pushed the Jones bill as the solution. Every major Religious Right group was involved. TV preacher Pat Robertson repeatedly attacked federal tax law on his "700 Club," and his legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, joined the crusade. Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council and other far-right groups also backed the Jones effort. The groups kept up the pressure until the Republican leadership of the House promised Jones a vote on the bill by the year's end.
Lurid rhetoric and wild distortions were the order of the day. According to the Religious Right's script, the IRS provision stifles America's pastors and prevents them from speaking out on important issues of the day. TV preacher D. James Kennedy went so far as to produce fliers showing a pastor with an IRS-imposed gag over his mouth.
Often, Jones personally led the charge, making the rounds on right-wing talk radio and cable broadcasts. His message, though far from accurate, was consistent: Federal tax law prevents houses of worship from speaking out on issues of the day and stifles free speech.
Critics, led by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, countered that Jones and the Religious Right had built their case largely on distortions. They pointed out repeatedly that the IRS regulations bar tax-exempt organizations only from endorsing or opposing specific candidates for public office and do not affect the clergy's ability to address social, moral or political issues. Religious leaders, AU noted, remain free to speak out on issues, and many do.
Unfazed, Jones has continued to spread misinformation. On Sept. 1 he told the conservative Washington Times newspaper, "Our churches and synagogues are denied their First Amendment rights in this country, at least when it involves political issues. From the beginning of this country, the churches have been very active, and this took that away from them."
Some Religious Right groups see an additional benefit in forcing a vote on the bill: They can use the vote to tar opponents in future elections. Christian Coalition Legislative Director Jim Backlin admitted that this is his group's strategy, telling the online magazine Salon last month, "I think it will be a fairly difficult vote for some moderate conservatives." If these members vote against the Jones bill, Backlin vowed, "Conservative, pro-family challengers will use that negative vote against them in political advertisements."
What sparked this frenzied campaign to change the tax code and why is it being so aggressively pursued now? Jones has freely admitted that he sponsored the bill in response to an Americans United effort called "Project Fair Play" that seeks to end abuses of the IRS standard. Under the project, Americans United reports egregious examples of church politicking to the IRS. The project was officially launched in 1996, and as word about it spread, it infuriated the Religious Right.
Religious Right organizations asserted that Project Fair Play was an effort to crack down on political activity by conservative churches and accused AU of targeting only houses of worship that endorsed Republicans. In reality, the project is non-partisan and seeks to educate all houses of worship, no matter what their political leanings, about the dangers of violating federal tax law.
Ironically, it was an effort by a Democratic political hopeful that inspired Project Fair Play. The project's roots actually stretch all the way back to 1988. In February of that year, Americans United wrote to Democratic presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson, warning him to scrap a plan he had announced to raise campaign funds in black churches. AU also wrote to the IRS, asking the agency to intervene in the matter. Jackson at first defended his actions but then backed off.
Four years later, AU again asked the IRS to investigate a case of partisan politicking by a church. The '92 case was particularly egregious. Days before the November presidential election, a small fundamentalist congregation then located near Binghamton, N.Y., placed a full-page ad in USA Today and The Washington Times, warning Christians that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin. The ad contained an appeal for tax-deductible contributions to defray its cost and help place more anti-Clinton ads.
Americans United reported the church to the IRS, which three years later pulled the church's tax-exempt status after its pastor, Daniel Little, refused to say he would stop intervening in partisan campaigns. Aided by Robertson's ACLJ, the church sued the IRS in an effort to get its tax exemption back but lost in federal court.
That case, Church at Pierce Creek v. Richardson, marked a turning point. Although religiously affiliated organizations and para-church groups had been denied tax exempt status for partisan activity in the past, Pierce Creek was the first time such a drastic action had been applied to a house of worship.
After the Church at Pierce Creek lost its legal challenge, angry Religious Right groups began demanding that Congress scrap the IRS provision. Jones, a four-term ex-Democrat who represents eastern North Carolina, agreed to lead the effort. His bill currently has 128 cosponsors, all but six Republicans. (See "Politicizing the Pulpit," April 2002 Church & State for a complete overview of the bill.)
The scuttlebutt in Washington is that the House GOP leadership does not see the Jones bill as a top priority. On May 14, the House's Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight held an informational hearing on the measure, which featured testimony in opposition from AU's Lynn and testimony in favor from TV preacher Kennedy, among others. Nevertheless, the unrelenting pressure from Religious Right groups forced the House leadership to act and agree on a vote.
As the November elections approach, Americans United has stepped up its activism in educating pastors about the dangers of intervening in partisan politics. In August, Americans United reported two churches for inappropriate political intervention.
The first church, New St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, allowed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jennifer M. Granholm to speak from the pulpit during services July 28, just nine days before the primary election. Following her remarks, the Rev. Larry Smith, church pastor, told the congregation to "thank our next governor" and added, "We know who to vote for, don't we?"
A few days later, Americans United reported Heritage Baptist Temple, a church in Lebanon, Mo., which allowed Darrell Pollock, a Republican candidate for state representative (and member of the congregation), to erect a sign on its property. A local resident contacted the church and informed them that the sign was illegal, but officials refused to take it down, arguing that the sign was permissible because it was 50 feet away from the entrance to the church.
Cases like these, Americans United points out, have nothing to do with a pastor taking a stand on political issues. They are clear attempts by religious leaders to use a tax-exempt entity to elect or defeat certain candidates.
Internal Revenue Service guidelines are clear on this distinction. In July the IRS issued a new "Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations." Six of the document's 25 pages deal with the issue of political activity. The publication states clearly, "The political campaign activity prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of churches or religious organizations speaking for themselves as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy." (The full document is available at the IRS website, www.irs.gov. Search for publication number 1828.)
The Religious Right's effort to distort what the IRS guidelines say is an important component in its strategy. Religious Right groups believe that by making the guidelines look draconian, they can win over church leaders.
So far, the effort does not appear to be working. Opinion polls show that most religious leaders oppose pulpit politicking and see federal tax law as reasonable. Most clergy also know that they are free to discuss political and social issues.
"Pastors always have the opportunity and privilege of speaking out in a responsible way on matters of faith as they apply to everyday life," said Jeffrey Warren Scott, senior pastor of Colonial Avenue Baptist Church in Roanoke, Va. "In my experience, it's been the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and trying to make sense of both."
Scott notes that this approach is far removed from efforts to politicize the pulpit by endorsing certain candidates. "It [the practice of clergy endorsements] is problematic for a couple of reasons," he told Church & State. "On a practical level, pastors are always concerned about building consensus and a spirit of harmony in the congregation. To take a strident position for one candidate over another is a fast track to disharmony."
Continued Scott, "That's the practical question. There also is an ethical problem. When you tell your congregation which individual to vote for, it is in essence saying, 'I have the inside track, I have the knowledge and you folks aren't smart enough to figure this out for yourself, you can't make a wise choice without my guidance.' It's a type of paternalism. I think that's unethical behavior. The proper role of the cleric is to inform so people can make their own choice in light of reason and faith."
Scott said the religious leaders he talks to don't complain about feeling muzzled by the IRS. He noted that any pastor who feels strongly about a candidate remains free to work on a campaign as a private citizen. Most members of the clergy he knows, Scott said, are very wary of tying their church to a politician or a political party.
"I think when the church crawls into bed with the Republican or Democratic Party or any political organization we're certainly in line for a communicable disease," Scott said. "You cozy up to these groups to your detriment."
Other religious leaders agree, and many of them are speaking out against the Jones bill. Numerous Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and other religious groups have announced official opposition to the measure. The only major religious body to endorse it is the Southern Baptist Convention, whose leaders often work hand in glove with the Religious Right.
Other conservative church leaders, targets of the Religious Right's ongoing campaign, have not been persuaded. In August, the Rev. Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), expressing strong opposition to the Jones bill. The action is significant, given the denomination's conservative leanings.
Kieschnick specifically debunked Jones' contention that current law stifles pastors' free speech, writing, "The assumption that their freedom of speech has been hampered by not being able to contribute a portion of their offerings to actual campaigns is inaccurate, in my opinion."
Later in the letter, Kieschnick outlined another concern over pulpit politicking that many religious leaders share the fear that it will sully the real mission of the church.
"Houses of worship should remain places of truth," he wrote. "Truth isn't always inherent in politics, as you may know. Members of religious institutions should have the assurance that they are going to hear the truths of their religions, not the opinions of the pastors as to which candidate is the better one. People expect unsullied integrity from their religious organizations; they hold their worship leaders to a higher standard. Partisan politicking lowers that bar."
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, himself a minister in the United Church of Christ, noted that sentiments like that span the theological spectrum. Lynn said that as he travels the country speaking on behalf of Americans United, he frequently talks to members of the clergy. Few, he said, want to see federal tax law changed to encourage church-based politicking.
"America's clergy do not want this change," Lynn said. "They know that houses of worship are supposed to focus on spiritual matters and not become political machines. The Jones bill is bad for politics and religion. It deserves to be soundly defeated."