TV Preachers, Elmer Gantry And U.S. Tax Law

My Day In Congress

The House Ways and Means Committee meets in just about the nicest hearing room on Capitol Hill. I'd never testified in this lavish venue before my recent appearance to discuss what is very wrong about two bills that would allow churches to engage in partisan politicking.

The room in the Longworth Office Building is so huge because usually it's overflowing with supplicants for tax breaks in the continual epic writing of the Internal Revenue Code. The room was less full when the Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing May 14 on Rep. Walter Jones' "House of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" and Rep. Phil Crane's "Bright-line Act."

That's too bad. What we discussed that day is far more important than whether widget production gets preferred tax treatment or whether the alternative minimum tax is abolished. Even changing a few words in the law that applies to non-profits and electioneering could have dramatically negative effects on both the integrity of religious institutions and the already-suspect honor of the campaign finance system.

Much of the day, I felt as if the bills' advocates were literally talking about life on some other planet or astral plane. To hear the proponents of these measures talk, houses of worship aren't allowed to utter a peep about political matters. Proponents before the committee, like TV preacher D. James Kennedy and Colby May of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, refused to acknowledge that tax laws currently permit unlimited advocacy of moral positions. Pastors can speak out on issues all they want; they simply cannot endorse or oppose a candidate for public office.

Do Kennedy and May know nothing about recent history? Don't they read the newspapers? Houses of worship led the fight for civil rights and advocated for an end to the Vietnam War. Conservative churches successfully lobbied for "abstinence only" sex education in many public schools and oppose legal abortion.

There's a crucial distinction between churches speaking out on what they consider to be moral issues and pushing for a particular candidate. Rep. John Lewis, who is one of America's most prominent civil rights leaders, made this crystal clear. Lewis was responding to Walter Fauntroy, a Baptist minister in Washington, D.C., who had invoked Martin Luther King in explaining why he believes churches must have the right to endorse candidates.

Lewis was not persuaded. "I knew Martin Luther King; he was a friend of mine," Lewis said. "He never, to my knowledge, endorsed a political candidate." It was a clear message that moral persuasion can be just as effective as political power-mongering.

Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries has actually sent out fund-raising letters that depict ministers with gags over their mouths and the IRS shuttering churches. Even allowing for a little hyperbole to pay the bills, this is simply fear-mongering and hysteria.

The fact is, only one church in modern history has actually lost its tax exemption for electioneering. The Church at Pierce Creek in New York blatantly violated the law in 1992 by placing a $44,000 ad in USA Today advocating the defeat of Bill Clinton. The church's pastor, who told reporters that he didn't care what the IRS or the courts thought, is still in business.

Mr. May claimed that "conservative" churches are held to a tighter standards, noting that Pastor Floyd Flake received just a warning from the IRS after he endorsed Al Gore from the pulpit in 2000.

But May overlooked a few relevant facts. The pastor of the Church at Pierce Creek repeatedly said that he would continue to do whatever he felt like doing, while Flake acknowledged that he made a mistake and promised not to violate the law again. Despite the IRS's reputation for ferocity, the agency will in fact give any pastor a second chance. Pierce Creek's pastor turned it down and essentially dared the IRS to use the ultimate sanction.

In another otherworldly exchange, Rep. Mark Foley asserted that ministers have more at stake in the outcome of elections than do the heads of secular non-profits (which would still be denied the right to engage in partisan activities under this legislation). I told him I couldn't imagine that the leader of an environmental group or an advocate for health care funding would agree that he or she has less interest in who sits in judgment on those issues. Giving special rights to religious groups is obviously an unconstitutional policy.

All in all it was a good afternoon. Welton Gaddy of The Interfaith Alliance, Brenda Girton-Mitchell of the National Council of Churches and I were able to address the serious flaws of the bills on the table. Committee members asked probing questions, and many clearly took issue with claims by Kennedy and May that churches are gagged. One member even said she was "insulted" by the notion that pastors had to tell their parishioners how to vote. Another expressed concern that clergy in the "Elmer Gantry model" may be pushing their agenda through the church politicking schemes.

The whole hearing was carried on television nationally via a C-SPAN broadcast, so now more Americans are aware of the threat these bills pose to both religion and the political process.

It is my hope that these proposals die right in that subcommittee.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State