Pulpits, Politics And Penalties

Americans United Urges IRS To Investigate Eight Churches That Distributed Christian Coalition Voter Guides

Green Bay, Wisc., churchgoers who attended Bayside Christian Fellowship Nov. 1 might be forgiven for thinking they had wandered into a political rally instead of a worship service that Sunday morning.

From the pulpit, the Rev. Arni Jacobson, the church's senior pastor, spoke of the importance of "family values" in the coming election and the church's opposition to abortion. He pointed out that Christian Coalition voter guides were available at the church information desk and urged attendees to pick them up.

Then Jacobson introduced Mark Green, a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress. Although he's not a member of the large, Pentecostal congregation, Green took the podium and spoke for a few minutes. Following his remarks, Jacobson and other church pastors laid hands on the candidate and offered a prayer for the "next 72 hours." No prayers were offered for Green's opponent, Democratic incumbent Rep. Jay Johnson.

On election day, Green defeated Johnson, 54 percent to 46 percent, making Johnson the only Democratic incumbent in the House of Representatives to lose his seat in 1998.

But Bayside Christian Fellowship did more than just pray for Green and give him access to the congregation from the pulpit. He also got a boost from the Christian Coalition voter guides distributed at the church. On the guide, Johnson was portrayed as taking stands likely to raise the ire of members of the conservative congregation. The flyer accused Johnson of supporting "abortion on demand," "special rights for homosexuals" and "restricting non-partisan voter guides." He was said to oppose a "Religious Freedom Amendment" and be against privatizing the National Endowment for the Arts.

Green, by contrast, was portrayed as a strong fiscal and social issues conservative, an opponent of legal abortion, gay rights and the National Endowment for the Arts. The distinction drawn between the two candidates could not have been clearer -- and it was probably not lost on the members of Bayside.

Bayside was hardly the only church that took a big dive into politics on Nov. 1. Across the country, millions of allegedly "non-partisan" voter guides prepared by TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition were distributed in conservative Christian churches the Sunday before election day. The Coalition claims 35 million guides went out. The number is probably inflated, but even allowing for Coalition officials' hyperbole and the fact that many churches dropped plans to distribute them due to fears over jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, it appears that several million guides did go out.

During the election season, Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced it would report churches that distributed Christian Coalition voter guides to the Internal Revenue Service. Now that the election is over, the church-state watchdog group is making good on that promise.

Americans United contends that the Coalition's guides are biased and deliberately stacked to promote Republican candidates. The guides, says AU, are partisan campaign material that may not be legally distributed in houses of worship.

Federal election law prohibits churches and other non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office or intervening in any political campaigns. The relevant portion of Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code says churches may not "intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."

In the months before the election, Americans United put out the word that the group was looking for examples of Coalition guides being distributed in churches. Dozens of reports poured into the organization after Nov. 3. From them, Americans United selected eight of the strongest cases, representing diverse geographical areas, and sent them to the IRS along with formal complaints requesting investigations.

The new effort was officially announced by Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn during a Dec. 10 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

"These houses of worship are breaking federal law, and appropriate penalties must be imposed," Lynn said at the event. "Although the Christian Coalition's own tax status permits the production of certain partisan material, the tax law does not allow the distribution of that material by churches.

"In September of 1997 Pat Robertson said he wanted the Christian Coalition, which is after all his child, to be the new Tammany Hall," continued Lynn. "On Sunday, Nov. 1, the Christian Coalition signed up these eight and, unfortunately, other churches as ward bosses for that very campaign.... The churches which have been lured into playing with the CC's electoral weapons have done so at their peril. It is our hope that the Internal Revue Service will work very quickly to resolve the eight cases that we have presented to them today and in so doing send the strongest possible signal of zero tolerance for this form of what can only been called political corruption in our electoral system."

Bayside Christian Fellowship was one of the churches reported. The others are: Crossroads Cathedral, Oklahoma City; Lighthouse Baptist Church, St. Maries, Idaho; First Assembly of God, Worcester, Mass.; Calvary Chapel, Santa Ana, Calif.; Evangelical Free Church, Wheaton, Ill.; MetroChurch, Edmond, Okla. and Sonrise Church, Hillsboro, Oregon.

Circumstances of the distribution varied. In several cases, ushers or other church officials handed out the guides or encouraged congregants to take them. In one case, Lighthouse Baptist, the guides were distributed by John Farris, head of the local county's Republican Party.

One of the churches, MetroChurch in Edmond, Okla., has a history of engaging in partisan politics. Local GOP officials handed out Coalition guides at the church just before the 1996 elections, and in April of 1997, the pastor, Jim Hylton, endorsed two candidates for city council in the church bulletin, an action that led Americans United to file an official complaint with the IRS.

Republican Party officials' eagerness to distribute Christian Coalition guides is further evidence that the flyers are partisan campaign material, asserts Americans United. Accordingly, the organization is working to present the best possible case to IRS officials.

For example, the voter guide distributed at Crossroads Cathedral provides a near-textbook example of how the Coalition manipulates and twists the guides to favor certain candidates.

In Oklahoma's sixth congressional district, Democrat Paul M. Barby challenged Republican incumbent Frank Lucas. The Christian Coalition sent Barby an "issues survey" asking his opinion on 96 concerns. Barby filled it out but wrote at the top, "Limiting my answers to 'support,' 'oppose' or 'undecided' would result in a less-than-honest answer in many instances. Therefore, I have crossed off those less-than-honest choices and responded with my own answer in those instances."

Needless to say, none of Barby's nuances or explanations were incorporated into the voter guide. Only four issues out of 96 were highlighted in Barby's race: the balanced budget amendment, banning "partial birth" abortion, the so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment" and term limits for Congress. Barby was listed as opposing all four, while Lucas was listed as supporting them.

But Barby maintains that the Coalition's simplistic "support/oppose" dichotomy fails to capture his real stand on all of these issues. On the balanced budget, for example, Barby said he supports the concept and believes the federal budget should be balanced, but without the help of a constitutional amendment. He also indicated that he might support term limits if other types of campaign reforms, such as curbs on what big business can spend, were initiated.

On the issue of abortion, the Christian Coalition questionnaire specifically asked if candidates would vote to override President Bill Clinton's veto of a bill barring certain types of late-term abortions. Barby indicated only that he would not vote to override a presidential veto. On the voter guide, this was translated into blanket opposition to a ban on this particular abortion procedure.

Lastly, Barby says, listing him as an opponent of the so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment" makes it sound as if he opposes religious freedom generally. Barby and other critics of the amendment maintain it had little to do with religious freedom, since the measure was intended to bring mandatory prayer back into public schools and require government to give tax funding to religious groups. On the questionnaire, Barby wrote that he believes religious freedom is adequately protected by the First Amendment and that he supports the right of public school students to pray on their own time, but this information was not included on the Coalition guide.

"My biggest concern with voter guides such as the Christian Coalition voter guide is the fact that it is used in place of the thought process," Barby said. "It replaces the critical thought process for people. This is the disaster we have been faced with in politics for a long time, and these guides are only exacerbating the situation. For example, by merely saying I am opposed to a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution denies people the opportunity to think about balancing the budget without amending the Constitution."

Continued Barby, "For those people who have been spoon-fed what to think, when they hear someone is opposed to the Religious Freedom Amendment, it's like saying that person opposes religious freedom. They don't hear the 'amendment' part. They don't get to hear what I really said -- that religious freedom is sacred in this country, and we currently have that freedom under the Constitution."

AU's decision to report houses of worship to the IRS for distributing Christian Coalition voter guides is an expansion of the group's "Project Fair Play" effort, first launched in March of 1996. AU undertook the project because of concerns that partisan politicking appeared to be on the rise in America's houses of worship. To combat it, AU promised to report instances of flagrant politicking to the IRS.

To date, AU has reported 25 houses of worship, religious non-profit groups and broadcast ministries to the IRS based on evidence that they were engaging in partisan politicking. Project Fair Play is designed to crack down on unlawful politicking of all kinds by churches or religious non-profit organizations. Some churches and groups that have been reported are accused of endorsing Republicans, others Democrats -- and one non-profit endorsed a third-party candidate.

Does the IRS take such reports seriously? Definitely. The issue of non-profit groups engaging in forbidden political activity has long been of interest to the tax agency. Last month Marcus Owens, director of the IRS's exempt-organizations division, told The Wall Street Journal, "This continues to be an area of concern."

IRS officials have indicated they will have zero tolerance for violations and in one 1995 memorandum took the following hard line: "Intervention in a political campaign [by a non-profit group] may be subtle or blatant. It may seem to be justified by the press of events. It may even be inadvertent. The law prohibits all forms of participation or intervention in 'any' political campaign."

In addition, the IRS also recently announced that it will create a new "tax exempt" division to oversee all non-profit groups, including religious organizations.

Church leaders should not make the mistake of thinking they can break federal tax law, warns Americans United. One church has already lost it tax-exempt status for intervening in the 1992 presidential campaign. The Church at Pierce Creek, a 300-member, fundamentalist Christian congregation in Vestal, N.Y., placed full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Times on the eve of the '92 election saying that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin. The ad went on to solicit "tax-deductible" contributions to offset the cost of running it.

Americans United reported the instance to the IRS, which pulled the church's tax-exempt status in 1995. The church filed a lawsuit in federal court to get it back, aided by attorneys from Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Oral arguments were heard before U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman Oct. 29, and a decision in the Branch Ministries v. Richardson case is pending.

During the oral argument, ACLJ attorney Jay Sekulow asserted that the IRS had singled out the conservative Church at Pierce Creek for investigation while ignoring partisan political activity by liberal houses of worship. But IRS attorney Alan J.J. Swirski countered that the tax agency is currently investigating 12 churches for possible violations of the no-politicking rule. He added that 23 other investigations were undertaken but then dropped and that four cases were settled.

Because of confidentiality rules, Americans United can't be certain whether any of these cases involve churches or non-profit groups reported under Project Fair Play, but, says AU, the investigations should be taken as strong evidence that the IRS is serious about enforcing the law in this area.

Churches placing newspaper ads against candidates is a clear violation of the IRS Code, but when does a voter guide cross the line? Non-profit groups are supposed to issue voter guides only if they are accurate and fair and cover a range of issues. Americans United contends Christian Coalition voter guides run afoul of IRS standards because they are clearly slanted to favor Republican candidates and narrowly focused on the social issues of concern to the Christian Coalition and its Religious Right allies (See "Stacked Deck," July-August 1996 Church & State).

The Christian Coalition disputes this, insisting churches have nothing to fear from its guides because they are non-partisan and merely designed to educate voters. In November, the Coalition went so far as to add a line to its guides reading, "This voter guide meets all IRS and FEC guidelines and is appropriate for distribution in churches, synagogues and by all other 501(c)(3) organizations."

This verbiage was cooked up by Coalition attorneys, but it is very misleading. Neither federal agency has given Coalition guides an official blessing, and in fact the Federal Election Commission is suing the Coalition in federal court for coordinating its activities with Republican campaigns.

TV preacher Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and chairman of its board of directors, has indicated that his goal is control of the Republican Party and eventually both chambers of Congress and the White House. To meet this goal, Robertson has announced plans to draft 100,000 churches into the group's political activities. At a closed-door speech in Atlanta in September of 1997, Robertson said the Coalition should emulate Tammany Hall, one of the most notorious political machines in American history.

Additionally, the Coalition's own public words belie its claim of non-partisanship. Last September, for example, Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate sent out a nationwide fund-raising letter requesting contributions to help pay for distributing 45 million voter guides. Donors were exhorted to stop the "anti-family, anti-Christian Left" from making electorial gains and were warned that if they failed to contribute, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other prominent Democrats could return to leadership positions in Congress. If that "nightmare" happens, Tate warned, "The Clinton White House will be able to do whatever it wants."

Remarked Lynn, "Randy Tate claims Christian Coalition guides are non-partisan and designed to merely educate voters, but then tells his members he will use them to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats. The hypocrisy factor here is astounding.

"It's time to end this farce," continued Lynn. "The IRS should move swiftly to take action against houses of worship that distribute Coalition guides and violate their tax-exempt status. I hope this new round of Project Fair Play complaints will spur the tax agency to do exactly that."

Lynn added that AU has renewed its plea to the IRS to reject the Coalition's bid for tax-exempt status. The Tate letter to donors was cited as renewed proof of the group's partisan purpose.