In this heated election year, Jerry Falwell and his allies on the far right are working to confuse America's pastors about tax law. In late July, the Lynchburg, Va.-based televangelist wrote to churches telling them not to worry about federal tax law.
Under the headline, "NO CHURCH HAS EVER LOST ITS TAX-EXEMPT STATUS," Falwell wrote, "Every American pastor, as a tax-paying citizen, is free to express his views and opinions."
Falwell also claimed that the IRS rarely enforces the "no politicking" rule, implying that churches should not worry about it.
As the election draws near, a church in Tampa, Fla., has learned the hard way that Falwell is wrong. The First Baptist Church of College Hill was preparing to host a political forum but had to rethink its plan at the last minute. The Rev. Abraham Brown had received a letter from the IRS earlier that day asking about political activity at the church on behalf of a Democratic candidate for public office.
This is just the latest evidence that the IRS takes seriously provisions of federal tax law forbidding partisan politicking by tax-exempt groups, including religious organizations.
Falwell certainly ought to know that. In 1993, his "Old Time Gospel Hour" was required by the IRS to pay $50,000 in back taxes for diverting charitable contributions into a political action committee that sought to elect congressional candidates. The ministry also had its tax exemption revoked retroactively for the years 1986-87.
Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network suffered a similar fate in 1997.