Americans United for Separation of Church and State has advised the Internal Revenue Service to adopt clear and effective new policies to deal with the problem of partisan electioneering by tax-exempt churches.
Americans United weighed in on the question after the IRS announced that it was soliciting comments for new rules governing the enforcement of provisions in federal tax law that bar churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates.
The federal tax agency was forced to act because earlier this year, a federal court issued a ruling about IRS procedure that has required the government agency to clarify its internal policies regarding investigations of houses of worship.
“The rules need to change to get necessary investigations back on track,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The law forbids tax-exempt churches to intervene in partisan politics, and the IRS needs an effective mechanism to enforce that mandate.”
Americans United outlined its views in comments filed before the IRS Nov. 2.
“Given the pervasiveness of church politicking violations, as well as efforts by some organizations in recent years to encourage houses of worship to blatantly violate federal law,” observed AU, “having a clear and valid enforcement regime is absolutely essential for the ongoing protection of religious liberty.”
AU said the provisions of federal tax law serve to protect the integrity of religion.
“Americans United has long recognized that religion flourishes best when the wall between church and state is vigilantly maintained,” the letter asserts. “Church politicking embroils houses of worship in divisive battles, pitting congregants against each other and their clergy.”
Continued AU, “The IRS limitation on partisan politicking is an important legal requirement that ensures that houses of worship, like all other non-profit organizations, do not embroil themselves in partisan disputes.”
AU’s letter to the IRS, signed by Lynn and Legislative Director Aaron D. Schuham, notes that the organization has a special interest in this area. Since 1996, Americans United has sponsored Project Fair Play, an educational effort designed to help pastors, laypeople and citizens understand the rules.
In cases of egregious violations of the law, AU files formal complaints with the IRS. Ninety-seven such complaints have been filed since 1996.
The issue of church politicking has become more controversial in recent years. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group, has been urging pastors to violate the “no politicking” rule by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. The ADF hopes to spark a new test case and challenge federal tax law in court.
In other news about church politicking:
• Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of Liberty University, may have intervened in partisan politics again. Falwell apparently targeted Shannon Valentine, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Falwell appears to be working to create a political machine in Lynchburg. The Lynchburg News & Advance reported that as many as 1,700 LU students registered to vote in the city this fall. Liberty’s student newspaper then ran several articles attacking Valentine and published a slanted voter guide that depicted Republican Scott Garrett as the “right” candidate on abortion, gay rights and other issues. Falwell arranged for copies of the newspaper to be sent to every household in Lynchburg in the days before the election.
On election day, Valentine was ahead with 19 of 20 precincts reporting. But when the precinct that includes Liberty came in, the lead disappeared and she ended up losing the seat by just over 200 votes.
Americans United is investigating the matter for possible tax-law violations.
• A Roman Catholic bishop is embroiled in a controversy over political intervention in New York.
Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio in Brooklyn recorded a “robo-call” ostensibly thanking Vito J. Lopez, a member of the New York State Assembly, that reached voters just days before local elections. Lopez was not running for re-election, but political observers said the stunt was intended to promote the candidacy of Maritza Davila for the New York City Council.
The New York Times reported that Lopez hand-picked Davila as his choice for the city council, hoping to unseat incumbent Diana Reyna. The Times reported that officials with the Diocese of Brooklyn have “made no secret of their dislike” for Reyna.
The scheme did not work, and Reyna was easily reelected with 60 percent of the vote.
A spokesman for the bishop insisted that the call had nothing to do with the council race and was merely intended to thank Lopez. The Brooklyn Democrat has helped the church hierarchy thwart legislative efforts to extend the deadlines for lawsuits focused on priestly sex abuse of minors. But critics said if gratitude was the case, there was no need to issue the thanks right before the election.