In recent days, a number of Religious Right groups, including Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, the American Family Association (AFA) and Jerry Falwell's Liberty Alliance have levied attacks against Americans United for Separation of Church and State over AU's election-year project to provide educational information to religious leaders about the law on churches and politics.
Falwell, Robertson and the AFA have sent letters to their supporters making a variety of false and misleading claims. To help set the record straight, Americans United has prepared the following "Questions & Answers" sheet, responding to points raised by AU's critics.
Q. The Christian Coalition, the AFA and Jerry Falwell claim that Americans United has mailed letters to religious leaders for the purpose of "confusing" pastors.
A. Americans United sent letters to 285,000 churches nationwide, not to confuse people, but rather to provide them with accurate election-year information.
There are a number of groups, including the Coalition and the AFA, that are attempting to politicize America's churches to advance a partisan agenda. We believe that's morally and legally wrong. To help religious leaders have all of the facts about federal tax law and the potential legal dangers a church may face if the law is ignored, AU launched a first-of-its-kind mailing. Far from trying to "confuse" anyone, we have provided accurate, objective and up-to-date information.
Q. The AFA says that pastors already understand federal tax law and that AU's educational information is not only unwarranted, but in fact, "arrogant."
A. Americans United's letter is educational information. It is true that most pastors are generally aware of federal tax law and recognize that there are legal limits on political activities. It is also true that the overwhelming majority of religious leaders follow the law. Yet, with the Christian Coalition and other Religious Right groups mounting aggressive campaigns to encourage political activities by churches, many pastors have become understandably unsure about what role houses of worship can play during the campaign season. AU wanted to provide churches with accurate information they might find helpful.
Q. The AFA has claimed that Americans United has given "no mention" to churches working on behalf of Democratic candidates and the Christian Coalition recently claimed that AU is a "front organization" for the Democratic Party. Is this true?
A. These accusations are absolutely false. Unfortunately, AU's critics chose to make these accusations without researching the facts. The truth is this: Americans United's work is strictly non-partisan. Our organization does not merely claim this to be true, we prove it with our work.
As a non-partisan organization, we believe that consistency is vital to making the process fair and even handed. Accordingly, while we have actively opposed churches working on behalf of Republican candidates, we have also opposed church work on behalf of Democratic and even Independent candidates. In fact, our first involvement with this subject came a decade ago with a complaint against Jesse Jackson's attempted use of churches for fundraising during his 1988 presidential campaign. We were also one of a few groups to file a complaint with the IRS against the Buddhist temple that held a fundraiser for Vice President Al Gore in 1996.
More recently, we have filed formal complaints with the IRS against several churches for engaging in partisan activities on behalf of Democratic candidates. Just this year, AU filed complaints against the Third New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich., for opposing George W. Bush's candidacy and the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York for endorsing Vice President Gore. Last year we reported the Asia Baptist Church in New Orleans for supporting a Democratic candidate for governor.
Just this month, when The New York Times reported that Gore had asked a number of African-American pastors to support his campaign from their pulpits, Americans United wrote to Gore the next day, complaining that his request was "highly inappropriate," and warning that his requested endorsements "could put the tax-exempt status of those churches at risk."
Accordingly, the suggestion that we are acting under some kind of double standard is inaccurate and unfair. Our efforts have been non-partisan and without bias, and our record clearly proves this fact.
Q. Why, then, are Americans United's election-year efforts focused on the Christian Coalition?
A. We oppose any efforts to politicize America's churches, regardless of the party or candidates that benefit. Our letter to religious leaders emphasized the Christian Coalition because Robertson's group is the only national entity that has launched a concerted effort to encourage churches to intervene in this campaign. Moreover, while other organizations are making voter guides available before the election, the Coalition is the only group to produce partisan campaign materials every election in recent years.
Q. The AFA claims Americans United is trying to silence pastors about important issues of the day, such as "abortion, homosexuality, personal responsibility and accountability, and truthfulness," and the Christian Coalition recently claimed that AU is trying to "silence the voice of Christians."
A. The law makes a clear distinction between partisan politicking on behalf of a candidate and speaking out on important moral issues. Americans United has been diligent in noting this distinction and informing churches of all their legal rights. In fact, as our educational materials explain, the IRS prohibition on partisan politicking by churches concerns candidate endorsements, not issues.
Religious leaders are well within their rights to take stands on political issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, health care and many others. They may also support or oppose ballot referenda. There's a difference between speaking on a political issue and distributing partisan political materials on behalf of candidates.
Q. The Christian Coalition claims its guides are non-partisan.
A. Anyone who examines a Coalition voter guide would see this isn't true. Since Robertson's group first began preparing the materials, it has consistently shown a clear bias in support of certain candidates who share the group's ideology. This year's guides are no different.
Many people wonder why there would be a problem with a voter guide if it simply lists a variety of important issues and candidates' positions on those issues. If that were all the Christian Coalition voter guides did, there wouldn't be a problem. However, the Coalition deliberately slants its guides to show a preference for one side over another.
Consider some of the "issues" used by the Coalition in the guide for this year's presidential election. The guide shows the position of the candidates on "Emphasizing Free Enterprise Solutions to Social Problems" and "Control of Public Education by Powerful Unions." No reasonable person could describe these issue descriptions as neutral, objective questions for a non-partisan voter guide.
Consider the advice of a group that disagrees with our efforts. Pat Robertson's own legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, has prepared materials explaining that in order for voter guides to be legal for church distribution, they "must be neutral and unbiased." (emphasis in the original). The guides are not neutral because they frame issues to suggest one answer is the right answer. By Robertson's own legal standards, his voter guides do not meet the criteria for legal church distribution.
Q. So the guides are slanted and partisan. Can't the Christian Coalition produce biased guides if it wants to?
A. Yes, the Coalition can produce partisan voter guides, but that doesn't mean churches can distribute them. Why? Because the Coalition and houses of worship have different tax-exempt statuses.
The Coalition falls under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which allows the group to engage in significant electioneering. Churches, however, fall under 501(c)(3), which prohibits all partisan political activities. In other words, the Christian Coalition can legally produce partisan voter guides, but churches can't distribute them.
Q. The Christian Coalition claims a federal judge cleared the Coalition's voter guides for distribution by churches.
A. This is transparently false. In fact, it is easy to disprove. The Christian Coalition insists that U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green cleared the group's voter guides in her Federal Election Commission v. Christian Coalition decision, and Americans United maintains that she did not. Pastors who hear both sides are understandably unsure as to whom to believe. We offer a simple solution: read the decision. Despite Roberston's frequent claims, nowhere in this ruling does the judge say that houses of worship are free to legally distribute the Coalition's guides. Don't take our word for it: read the decision for yourself. If Americans United is wrong, the decision will back up Robertson's claims. If the Coalition's claim is not in the ruling, you'll see that Americans United is telling the truth and that Robertson is not. We encourage you to see for yourself. (The decision is available online at http://www.dcd.uscourts.gov, the case number is Civil Action No. 96-1781.)
Q. So what did happen in the Federal Election Commission v. Christian Coalition lawsuit?
A. The FEC claimed that the Coalition had illegally coordinated its activities with the Republican Party. The Coalition was found to have violated election law in two instances, but the group was cleared of a series of other charges. Ironically, the court found that most of the charges of illegal "coordination" had not occurred under election law because Republican campaigns rebuffed the Coalition's advances. As the decision in this case noted, this was "not for lack of trying" by the Coalition. In other words, the Coalition tried to violate election law but failed.
Please note, instead of clearing the guides for church distribution, the judge in this case observed in her decision that the group's voter guides have "made clear which candidates the Coalition preferred." Of course, if the guides prefer one candidate over another, they would constitute "intervention" and churches would not be able to legally distribute them.
Q. If the judge never said churches can legally distribute the Coalition's voter guides, why does the Christian Coalition keep saying the opposite?
A. Good question. Perhaps you should ask the Coalition.
Q. In a recent letter to CC supporters, Robertson says, "After a decade of costly litigation, IRS attorneys admitted in court that Christian Coalition deserved its tax-exempt status all along."
A. The IRS denied the Christian Coalition's application for tax-exempt status in 1999, presumably for years of partisan political activities. To get around that decision, the Coalition changed its name to the Christian Coalition of America and took over its Texas chapter, which had its own tax-exempt status.
Last February, the Coalition sued the IRS in federal court, claiming that the federal tax agency discriminated against the organization by denying it a tax exemption. In July, the IRS agreed to settle the case by conceding that the Coalition was tax exempt -- but only for the year 1990. The tax agency agreed to refund the organization $169.26 in taxes it paid for that year. The result of the settlement now means that Coalition was tax-exempt in 1990, but obviously, this decision has no bearing on the ongoing voter guide controversy.
Q. Aren't Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell experts on the issue of churches and politics?
A. If Robertson and Falwell are experts on anything, it's running afoul of the law and getting caught.
In February 1993, the Internal Revenue Service determined that funds from Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour program were illegally funneled to a political action committee. The IRS forced Falwell to pay $50,000 and retroactively revoked the Old Time Gospel Hour's tax-exempt status for 1986-87. (The Federal Election Commission also fined Falwell in October 1987 for transferring $6.7 million in funds intended for his ministry to political committees.)
Robertson's record is no better. In March 1998, Robertson was forced to pay a penalty to the IRS for illegal political activity by his Christian Broadcasting Network. The IRS also retroactively revoked the tax-exemption for CBN for 1986 and 1987.
Q. Why does federal tax law prohibit churches from engaging in partisan politicking?
A. Federal law prohibits church politicking to protect the integrity of the church and the democratic process. Houses of worship are tax-exempt because the government assumes that their work is charitable, not political. When a church accepts tax-exempt status, the church's leaders agree that certain conditions will be met, among them that their work will not be partisan.
To create a system where churches could act as political institutions while maintaining their tax-exempt status would wreak havoc on the nation's campaign finance laws and destroy the integrity of our churches. If politicians and political parties could simply give huge sums of money to houses of worship, write off the donations as tax-deductible and then have the churches work on their behalf, that would essentially make churches part of a money-laundering scheme. Tax law ensures that this does not happen.
This isn't a question of squelching a church's free speech rights. In exchange for a tax exemption, houses of worship voluntarily agree to follow the tax law. If a church decides that it wants to actively promote candidates for public office or form a political action committee, that church has every right to give up its tax-exempt status and engage in as many political activities as it pleases.
Q. Why doesn't the IRS simply issue a statement about churches and politics?
A. It did. On July 5, 2000, the Internal Revenue Service issued a forceful warning (Document #IR-2000-47), reminding churches and other tax-exempt charities that partisan political activities are strictly forbidden under federal tax law.
The IRS statement says in no uncertain terms that tax-exempt groups, including churches, "are prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office." The agency's advisory went on to explain that churches cannot escape responsibility by claiming non-partisan intentions.
"(A)ctivities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria nevertheless violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3)," the IRS said.
The IRS advisory noted that a New York legal group was denied tax-exempt status because it issued ratings of candidates for office. In 1988, a federal appellate court upheld the tax agency's action. That should be particularly relevant to churches considering distribution of Christian Coalition voter guides.
Q. Why doesn't the Coalition simply mail the group's voter guides to its membership and leave churches out of its political efforts?
A. One, it would cost the group a lot more money. The Christian Coalition claims to have over a million members, and mailing a specific voter guide to each member would cost a great deal. It's cheaper for the Coalition to send stacks of guides to houses of worship and let individual churches do the work. Second, Robertson wants to build a political machine, which he himself has said should emulate the infamous Tammany Hall machine. He feels roping churches into a powerful political bloc is necessary to create this movement.
Q. If the Christian Coalition voter guides are impermissible for church distribution, what would constitute an acceptable voter guide?
A. Americans United has a legal memorandum available on just this point. We hired the top tax lawyers in Washington, including the former head of the Exempt Organizations Ruling Area at the IRS, to prepare a specific explanation about the legal requirements for voter guides to qualify as permissible voter education.
Q. Is there any point on which the two sides can agree about the voter guide controversy?
A. Reviewing the advice given to religious leaders from Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, there are a great deal of similarities with the advice given by Americans United. Both agree that churches cannot endorse candidates but can speak out on important issues of the day. The ACLJ also acknowledges that churches cannot intervene in political campaigns; so does Americans United. The ACLJ even agrees that churches cannot distribute partisan campaign literature in the sanctuary. The only difference is that the ACLJ considers Christian Coalition voter guides to be non-partisan, and Americans United has compiled ample evidence to prove the guides are partisan.
Q. Falwell's letter to his supporters said AU "has not been successful in attempting to revoke any church's tax-exempt status." Is this true?
A. Americans United filed a formal complaint with the IRS against The Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., after the church published a full-page ad in USA Today in late October 1992 advising people that voting for presidential candidate Bill Clinton was a sin. The church lost its tax-exempt status in 1995 after the IRS determined it had violated federal tax law with the advertisement. The church sued in federal court to regain its tax exemption but lost in federal district court. A federal appellate court unanimously upheld the lower court's ruling denying the church tax-exempt status.
It is worth noting that the IRS has investigated other churches based on complaints filed by Americans United. For example, when AU reported the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York earlier this year for endorsing Vice President Gore, the IRS contacted the church's pastor, the Rev. Floyd Flake, and according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, had him sign a document indicating that he understands tax law and intends to follow it. In other words, the IRS can and does follow up on Americans United complaints about the partisan activities of houses of worship.
Q. Robertson's legal group said they'd defend in court any church that gets into legal trouble with the IRS.
A. That's true, but Robertson's legal group also sued on behalf of the Church at Pierce Creek. That church lost its tax-exempt status and lost its court case, even with Robertson's legal help.
"The sole purpose of Americans United contacting churches during this election season has been to help them with accurate, up-to-date information," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of AU. "I have been disappointed by the unfair and intemperate reaction from the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association and Jerry Falwell's Liberty Alliance. Despite the assertions made by these groups, religious leaders nationwide should be cautious before engaging in any partisan political activities that may invite legal difficulties for their churches.
"Pastors can understandably grow confused when they hear conflicting information from outside groups," Lynn added. "The Christian Coalition claims its guides have been cleared by a federal judge for church distribution, the facts show otherwise. The Christian Coalition claims AU's work is biased, the facts show otherwise. Pastors who want to know the truth should consider these facts as they make up their minds. Read the court rulings, look at the record, consider federal tax law and see who's telling the truth."
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.