Back-door Politicking

Tax-Exempt Groups Raise Red Flags

Tax-Exempt Groups Raise Red Flags

The Internal Revenue Service has stepped up its warnings to tax-exempt houses of worship to stay out of partisan politics. Yet it seems some people still aren’t getting that message – or have chosen to ignore it.

The Texas Freedom Network (TFN) last month asked the IRS to look into the activities of a non-profit group based in Houston that appears to be a front for a church-based political machine determined to elect Republicans to office.

TFN reports that the Niemoller Foundation, created in May 2005, spent about $1.26 million that year to fund the activities of the Texas Restoration Project. Much of the money came from four major donors, three of whom were also large contributors to Gov. Rick Perry, who faced reelection in 2006.

The Texas Restoration Project used the money to host thousands of pastors and their spouses at six “Pastors’ Policy Briefings” in 2005. At the time, Perry faced possible intra-party challenges from other Republicans in the state. It’s TFN’s belief that the events were designed to boost Perry’s fortunes. He was the only candidate invited to speak at all six events. After Perry’s reelection, the Texas Restoration Project held an event celebrating his inauguration, so the group was hardly neutral.

This pattern is being duplicated in other states. Organizations similar to the Texas Restoration Project were formed in Iowa and South Carolina and hosted speeches by Mike Huckabee. It does not appear that any other candidates were invited to speak.

Americans United has noticed this pattern elsewhere. Huckabee, who is a Southern Baptist minister, often appears in churches where he ostensibly speaks on theology and faith. He claims these events are not intended to promote his candidacy, but you’d have to have been living in a cave not to know that the man is running for president. He’s the only candidate given face time, which certainly creates the impression that the churches favor him.

Is this legal? The IRS allows candidates to speak in churches but warns against any actions that give preference to one candidate over another. It also calls for equal treatment of candidates. If one is given access to the pulpit, others should be as well.

Rather than try to find loopholes to the law, America’s religious leaders would do better to keep their pulpits free of all forms of partisan politicking. Pastor Smith may like Huckabee, but that does not mean everyone sitting in the pews agrees. His congregants may be backing other candidates. Pastor Smith can pull a lever for whomever he likes on Election Day; he has no right to use church resources to persuade others to make the same choice.

Polls show that most Americans oppose pulpit-based politicking. It isn’t because they’ve memorized every jot and tittle of federal tax law. It’s because they rightly see pulpit politicking as a corruption of the church’s true mission. The sooner America’s pastors understand that the better.