Maryland Politicians Return Donations From Religious Groups

Several political leaders in Maryland who accepted illegal donations from churches returned the money after an investigation by the Baltimore Sun.

The Sun reported Feb. 26 that more than 100 Maryland churches “have made campaign contributions to political candidates in recent years, an act that is prohibited by federal tax law and blurs the line between politics and the pulpit.”

Reporter John Fritze noted, “Some have given repeatedly, such as the Southern Baptist Church in East Balti­more, which made a dozen campaign donations between 2000 and 2004 that add up to more than $3,000, according to a review by The Sun of candidate finance reports.

“Statewide, at least 115 churches have given to about 40 candidates since 2000, according to the review, and while the donations are generally small and sporadic, they flout Internal Revenue Service regulations that prohibit churches from advocating for specific political candidates.”

The Internal Revenue Code prohibits houses of worship and other non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Non-profit contributions to candidates’ coffers are flatly forbidden.

Elected officials at first tried to defend the practice. Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who has received $16,000 from churches since 2000, including $500 from the church he pastors, said he considered the practice no big deal.

“We’re talking about faith-based this and faith-based that – why not?” said Burns. “We’re moving in that direction. It doesn’t mean that because a church buys a ticket that it supports a political position. They’re just going to be at an event.”

Religious leaders contacted by the newspaper offered a variety of explanations for their donations. Some said they did not know about the law or that they did not consider their donations a political contribution.

In one case, a sheriff in Cecil County attended a banquet at a church in Elkton and won a $2,000 raffle. He requested that the prize be made out to his campaign.

“He won fair and square,” Peg Calla­han, the church business manager, said. “We will never do it again, since we know now we weren’t supposed to do that.”

As the story spread over the state and national wires, the politicians began to have second thoughts. On March 3, Del. Adrienne A. Jones returned more than $2,000 she had collected from churches, saying she wanted to “do the right thing” and not jeopardize the churches’ tax-exempt status.

A few days later, state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden announced he would return more than $2,000 he collected from churches. Three more lawmakers followed suit the next day. Among them was Burns.

“The law is the law – though I don’t agree with it – and must be honored,” Burns said in a statement. “In no way do I wish to compromise the tax-exempt status of my base of support.”

In other news about religion and politics:

• A Baptist church in East Helena, Mont., broke state campaign laws by intervening in a referendum without reporting its participation, the Commis­sioner of Political Practices has ruled.

Commissioner Gordon Higgins determined that the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church had become an “incidental campaign committee” due to its work in support of Amendment 96, a constitutional ban on gay marriages that passed by a 2-1 margin in 2004. Higgins said the church failed to report “in kind” contributions in support of the amendment.

Church leaders say the Montana law is unconstitutional and are fighting it in court. The congregation is being backed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group.