In a mailing to Southern Baptist denominational leaders today, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned that electioneering by churches could result in the loss of their tax exemptions.
Writing to state and national Baptist offices and clergy around the country, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn urged the religious leaders to recognize the boundaries of federal tax law governing political activity. In addition, Lynn enclosed an election-year advisory on churches and politics prepared by one of Washington's leading law firms.
The Americans United project comes in response to misinformation about churches and political activity being spread by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Falwell has recently been on a national crusade to enlist the religious community to back the re-election of President George W. Bush and to support other conservative candidates.
Through e-mails, televised messages, sermons, speeches and other avenues, Falwell has urged pastors to intervene in partisan campaigns. Falwell and Mat Staver, an attorney who works for him, claim that the Internal Revenue Service rarely enforces a provision barring intervention in campaigns by tax-exempt organizations. They are expected to make the same claims at a Falwell-sponsored pastors' conference in Lynchburg Sept. 27.
Falwell and Staver are dead wrong, Americans United says, and to combat their bad advice, Americans United today mailed accurate information to Southern Baptist leaders.
The seven-page document, "Politics and the Pulpit," was written by Milton Cerny of the Washington, D.C., law firm Caplin & Drysdale. In clear language, it explains what the law allows and explains where Falwell and Staver have misinterpreted the IRS Code.
The document was mailed to Baptist officials because Falwell is himself a prominent Southern Baptist and Baptist clergy are most likely to have received the Falwell misinformation.
Falwell's advice is dangerous and distorted, says Americans United.
"Jerry Falwell is trying to mislead America's religious leaders to meet his own partisan ends," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Any religious leaders who follows his advice is putting his church's tax-exemption at risk."
In a cover letter to the Baptist officials around the country, Lynn noted that Falwell is in no position to advise pastors in this area. In 1993, the IRS retroactively pulled the tax exemption of Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour" after determining that he had used ministry resources to support congressional candidates. Falwell had to pay $50,000 in back taxes.
By contrast, Cerny worked at the Internal Revenue Service for 28 years, including as the chief of the Exempt Organizations Rulings area, and currently serves as adjunct professor of law on non-profit organizations at American University's Washington College of Law.
Observed Lynn in the letter, "I know that Falwell is a well known televangelist, but I urge you to be very wary of his advice. The ultimate goal of Falwell and Staver is to influence the course of the election this November, not to protect the integrity and tax-exempt status of churches."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State 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.
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.