Ohio Clergy Call For IRS Action Against Religious Right Pulpit Politicking Project

A group of Ohio clergy is calling on the Internal Revenue Service to take action against a Religious Right legal group that has urged pastors to violate federal tax law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an Arizona-based legal group founded by television and radio preachers, dubbed Sept. 28 “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” and urged pastors to deliver partisan sermons. The ADF claimed as many as three dozen churches might take part. (The event had not yet occurred as this issue of Church & State went to press.)

In response, a band of Ohio clergy led by the Rev. Eric Williams of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus called a press conference Sept. 8 to urge the IRS to take action against the ADF.   

In a letter to the agency, Williams and other clergy called for an investigation of the ADF to determine whether the group has jeopardized its tax-exempt status by advising churches to break the law. The missive argued that clergy are free to address social and moral issues without endorsing candidates.

“In order to fulfill the role of the faith community in society, it is necessary to understand the difference between political and electoral activity,” observes the letter. “We need to know the church-state line, and we need to step up to it – but we must avoid crossing it.

“As leaders and communities of faith, we are called to be God’s prophetic and pastoral voices,” continues the letter. “We can raise difficult issues. We can hold challenging forums. We can champion important causes – but we must not endorse particular candidates, raise money for their campaigns or parties or offer special favors not extended to others.”

Williams and the other pastors called on clergy nationwide to counter the ADF by preaching on Sept. 21 about the importance of church-state separation and the need for faith communities to be non-partisan.

Joining Williams in the action were the Rev. Rebecca Tollefson of the Ohio Council of Churches, Rabbi Harold Berman of Congregation Tifereth Israel and others.

The ADF’s church electioneering project has also drawn fire from several top former IRS officers.

In a second letter to the IRS, three former IRS executives – Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division; Mortimer Caplin, former IRS commissioner; and Cono R. Namorato, former head of the IRS’s Office of Professional Responsibility – called for penalties against the ADF.

The three charged that the ADF may have violated its tax-exempt status and that ADF attorneys may have run afoul of ethics rules. In their letter to Michael Chesman, director of the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, they requested an investigation of the matter.

Owens, Caplin and Namorato charge that the ADF’s actions violate Circular 230, a set of professional guidelines that cover tax attorneys. Part of the code prohibits “incompetent and disreputable conduct,” and the ex-IRS officials say the ADF has violated this standard.

“In the course of organizing and publicizing this [church electioneering] project, ADF’s staff of attorneys is inducing churches to engage in conduct designed to violate Federal tax law in a direct and blatant manner,” the letter asserts. “This activity – coordinating mass violation of Federal tax law – is clearly ‘incompetent and disreputable conduct’ defined in and subject to sanction under Circular 230. In our view, these ADF efforts present a direct threat to the integrity of our tax system.”

Americans United hailed the Ohio religious leaders’ move.

“I am delighted to see clergy stand up for church-state separation,” AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said. “The vast majority of America’s religious leaders reject pulpit politicking, and I’m glad to see some of them speak out so clearly and forcefully.”

Continued Lynn, “Americans go to church for spiritual reasons, not to get a list of political endorsements. The Alliance Defense Fund ought to be ashamed of itself for attempting to drag churches into partisan politics.”

In other news about church politicking in Ohio, the Columbus Dispatch has reported that Pastor Rod Parsley’s World Harvest Church was investigated by the IRS for two years after a complaint was filed about partisan politicking there. The IRS would not comment publicly on the investigation, but the ordeal has apparently given Parsley some pause. He told the newspaper he won’t be taking part in the ADF pulpit politicking overture.