Jerry Falwell’s message could not have been more blunt.
“For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush,” the TV preacher wrote in a July 1 “Falwell Confidential” e-mail to his supporters. “The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable.”
Falwell’s message may have been plain but federal tax law is just as plain: No use of tax-exempt resources for partisan politicking. Americans United for Separation of Church and State responded swiftly with a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service about the televangelist’s use of his tax-free entities for electioneering.
“Falwell is thumbing his nose at the IRS,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a press statement. “He must not be permitted to use a tax-exempt ministry to engage in partisan politics. The vast majority of America’s religious institutions play by the rules. He should too.”
The Falwell e-mail, which also appeared on www.falwell.com, exhorted “every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew, every Reagan Democrat, and everyone in between to get serious about re-electing President Bush.”
One way to get serious about re-electing Bush, Falwell’s e-mail noted, is to donate up to $5,000 to the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee headed by Gary Bauer, a far-right pundit and former Republican presidential candidate.
“It is the organization,” Falwell wrote, “that I believe can have the greatest impact in re-electing Mr. Bush to the Oval Office.” Falwell’s e-mail conveniently provided a weblink to Bauer’s group.
Americans United, in its July 15 complaint to the IRS, charged that Falwell appeared to have blatantly violated federal law barring tax-exempt groups from partisan politicking.
“Falwell is using his ministry to urge the election of George W. Bush and other candidates and to implore supporters to make contributions to a PAC whose purpose is to secure the election of Bush and other candidates.” Lynn wrote in the complaint to the IRS. “I believe this is intervention in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate in clear violation of federal tax law. I urge you to take appropriate action to correct this abuse of law.”
Several national media outlets, including The New York Times and the Associated Press (AP), covered AU’s action. Falwell responded in those forums with attacks on AU’s motives and denials of any tax law violations.
The Lynchburg, Va.-based televangelist told the Times that AU’s IRS complaint was a “fright tactic” aimed at shutting up religious conservatives during the election season. He also argued that his e-mail only detailed his personal views that he could make anywhere, even at his tax-exempt Thomas Road Baptist Church, without subverting federal tax law and that the “Falwell Confidential” e-mail was posted on a website owned by his lobbying group, the Liberty Alliance.
In fact, Liberty Alliance wasn’t mentioned when the partisan message was sent out.
The July 1 “Falwell Confidential” e-mail referenced only Falwell’s website, www.falwell.com, and all the information there focused on Jerry Falwell Ministries, a $12-million-per-year tax-exempt enterprise. Both the homepage and the donation webpage on falwell.com prominently included the Jerry Falwell Ministries logo.
Moreover, the mission statement on the website made no mention of Liberty Alliance, and merely stated that Jerry Falwell Ministries is “firmly grounded” in Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, and that Falwell’s followers “act as both SALT and LIGHT … reaching the world with the gospel, teaching and training believers, reviving the hearts of God’s people and healing the wounds of immorality and godlessness in our nation.”
Research with internet sources adds evidence that Jerry Falwell Ministries is indeed involved with the operation of the website. While the registration record of the falwell.com website cites Liberty Alliance as its owner, information from NetworkSolutions also notes that Jerry Falwell Ministries provides the administrative and technical support for the site.
A registration record also exists for the website domain name, jerryfalwell.com. It shows Jerry Falwell Ministries as the owner as well as the source of technical and administrative support. The two domain names access the same website where the partisan Falwell appeal was posted.
AU’s Lynn says it is imperative for the IRS to open an investigation and put a stop to Falwell’s political shenanigans.
“Falwell is once again playing a shell game that frankly wouldn’t work in a backwoods carnival,” Lynn told the AP when asked about the televangelist’s contention that his e-mail was the product of the Liberty Alliance. “He knows this is not what the law permits and he seemingly doesn’t care.”
After Americans United filed its complaint with the IRS, Falwell desperately tried to add some camouflage to his website. New language about the Liberty Alliance has suddenly appeared on every page of falwell.com. The mission statement has also been changed and now includes the claim that, falwell.com “is sponsored by The Liberty Alliance.” It now claims that Liberty Alliance “proudly supports the work of Jerry Falwell Ministries.”
Beyond altering the look of the falwell.com website, Falwell has responded to the Americans United complaint with belligerence and misinformation about federal tax law.
In a follow-up “Falwell Confidential” e-mail, with the headline “Barry Lynn Is Trying To Scare Churches … Again,” Falwell attacked Americans United as a “leftist organization,” dubbed Lynn an ACLU “operative” and misstated federal tax law regarding nonprofits and political campaigns.
Falwell’s July 21 e-mail included the claim that, “NO CHURCH HAS EVER LOST ITS TAX-EXEMPT STATUS,” and that, “Every American pastor, as a tax-paying citizen, is free to express his views and opinions.” An analysis by an attorney with the Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal outfit affiliated with Falwell, asserted that the IRS rarely enforces the “no politicking” rule and implied that churches should not worry about that federal regulation.
Liberty Counsel attorney Mat Staver wrote that “the IRS has almost no teeth.”
On July 28, Americans United swung into action again and filed another complaint with the IRS charging that Falwell was effectively urging other churches to flout federal tax law.
“Looked at in conjunction with the material I sent on July 15, I think it is obvious that Falwell is working assiduously to skirt the Internal Revenue Code and urging other religious leaders to do the same,” Lynn wrote in the IRS letter.
Lynn’s letter noted that Falwell is in no position to offer advice to churches on this subject, citing heavy IRS penalties against Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” for improper political activities.
In 1993, The New York Times and the Associated Press reported that the federal tax agency, after a four-year investigation, concluded that the Old Time Gospel Hour had helped raise money for the “I Love America” political action committee.
The settlement resulted in the retroactive revocation of the tax-exempt status of the Old Time Gospel Hour for 1986 and 1987 and required Falwell to pay $50,000 in back taxes for those years. The televangelist was also required to take steps to prevent future violations of tax law and to circulate a statement detailing terms of the settlement to news organizations. That statement also noted that the Liberty Federation, another Falwell outfit, had decided not to contest the revocation of its tax exemption in 1991. The IRS had determined that the group did not operate exclusively for religious and charitable purposes.
In April 1993, many months after reaching that settlement, the IRS decided that Falwell had not properly publicized the agreement and began informing national news organizations about it.
Apparently Falwell is still smarting from his tangle with the IRS. Recently on two occasions he vehemently denied the incident ever occurred.
In early July, Falwell and AU’s Lynn appeared on CNBC’s “Capital Report” to debate the efforts of President Bush’s re-election campaign to enlist the help of “friendly congregations.” Toward the end of the segment Falwell lashed out at AU’s Project Fair Play, which advises churches about federal tax law, accusing the group of “trying to put a fright” into churches. At that point, Lynn noted the Old Time Gospel Hour’s run-in with the IRS, sending Falwell into a fit.
“Never,” Falwell shouted. “Never. Never. Not one minute. Not one second. You are wrong.… Never one second did we lose our tax exemption.”
He later added, “You are telling a lie right now, Barry.”
Falwell did the same thing in another July television appearance. AU staffer Rob Boston confronted Falwell on Fox News Network’s “The Big Story With John Gibson,” over the televangelist’s IRS problems. Again Falwell was defiant, saying that “Old Time Gospel Hour or any other ministry with which I’ve been associated has never lost its tax exemption.”
In early August during a debate with Lynn on Fox News Live about the role of churches in politics, Falwell finally admitted the truth. He contended that Old Time Gospel Hour had entered a settlement agreement with the IRS – to avoid further legal costs.
“We went through four and half years of audits and our attorneys and the IRS attorneys agreed that they would settle if we would pay $50,000 in taxes rather than a million dollars continuing legal fees,” Falwell explained. “We did that, consenting nor denying under any agreement.”
During that Fox News debate, Lynn brandished, as proof of Falwell’s trouble with tax law, a copy of Falwell’s public statement, which had been published in its entirety in the May 1993 issue of The Exempt Organization Tax Review.
“Old Time Gospel Hour (“OTGH”) today announced that the IRS has revoked its tax exempt status for 1986 and 1987 for improper political activities,” reads a segment of Falwell’s Feb. 17, 1993 statement. “As a condition of reinstatement of Federal tax-exempt status, OTGH said it agreed to pay $50,000 in tax for two years and to change its organizational structure to ensure that no future political campaign intervention activities will occur.”
It appears that Falwell was emboldened rather than humbled by his experience with the federal tax agency. In early August, he announced that he would provide “a special summit for pastors and church leaders” as part of his Thomas Road Baptist Church’s “Super Conference 2004.” Falwell told the Associated Press that his late September summit in Lynchburg will address “the controversy over the right of churches to be involved in moral and social issues….”
Falwell assured the AP, “We’re going to be careful not to break the law, but we are also going to be careful not to be intimidated by left-wing thugs, not to let them intimidate evangelical pastors into silence.”
AU’s Lynn, however, advises pastors to skip Falwell’s conference.
“The scriptures say, if the blind lead the blind, they both will fall into the ditch,” Lynn told The Washington Post. “Or in this case, into the hands of the IRS.”
Falwell’s strident partisanship has been a matter of public record since he was recruited into politics in the late 1970s by right-wing strategists Paul Weyrich and others. Falwell’s now-defunct Moral Majority was the flagship organization of a Religious Right that recruited evangelical Christians into Republican Party politics in the 1980s.
Falwell has regularly tried to skirt the federal tax regulation against church-politicking, albeit with limited success due to Americans United’s vigilance.
In 1997, only years after his IRS settlement was made public, Falwell unveiled a plan to draw fundamentalist churches into partisan politics. The scheme included sending sample candidate endorsement sermons to pastors to promote a Republican candidate for attorney general.
Americans United exposed the plan in the news media and sent a complaint to the IRS in July urging an investigation. The threat of IRS action and the news media exposure of Falwell’s tactics effectively killed the plan to spur churches to engage in improper political activities. Americans United received or uncovered no reports of pastors endorsing or otherwise promoting politicians.
In spring 2000, the televangelist launched a “People of Faith” project, which was aimed at raising $25 million for registering up to 10 million Christian conservatives before Election Day. In a March interview with USA Today, Falwell said, “It is my experience that most people of faith in this country vote pro-family, pro-life, and that will mean George W. Bush.”
In a fund-raising letter produced by the Jerry Falwell Ministries seeking support for the “People of Faith” initiative, Falwell derided then-Vice President Al Gore and accused him of “openly courting the radical homosexual movement and pledging allegiance to the most extreme parts of the gay agenda.”
Americans United protested the project and alerted the media to Falwell’s efforts on behalf of the Bush campaign.
Falwell’s partisan efforts to register millions of conservative Christians apparently fizzled before Election Day. Bush captured a narrow and controversial victory in the Electoral College and months later his senior political adviser groused publicly about the disappointing turn-out of Christian conservatives on behalf of Bush.
Not long into its term, the Bush administration was forced to distance itself from Falwell because of an extraordinarily offensive commentary the TV preacher offered up on a nationally televised broadcast two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
On Sept. 13, Falwell appeared on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” to discuss the aftermath of the horrific strikes. Both men blamed 9/11 on Americans’ profligate ways.
According to Falwell, God had allowed “the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve” because of the work of church-state separationists, supporters of reproductive rights, pagans and gays.
“I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen,’” Falwell declared.
White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said Bush “does not share those views, and believes that those remarks are inappropriate.”
But relations between Falwell and the Bush team have warmed again.
In fall 2003, Falwell was among a group of Religious Right leaders who had front row seats at Bush’s bill-signing ceremony for a ban on a rare late-term abortion procedure that its opponents call “partial-birth abortion.”
In an e-mail to supporters, Falwell bragged about a subsequent “private meeting” that he and the other religious leaders were granted with the president in the White House following the bill-signing ceremony.
Then, this spring, Bush adviser Rove delivered the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg.
“I have known Karl Rove for many years,” Falwell said in a press release announcing Rove’s participation, “and I am greatly impressed by his wisdom, dedication to President Bush and his love for Jesus Christ.”
In late April, the IRS issued a presidential election-year advisory to nonprofits urging them to follow the restriction on political endorsements. Then in June, the tax agency issued what is reported to be a first-of-its-kind letter to the nation’s political parties reminding them that churches and other nonprofit groups are not allowed to engage in partisan politicking.
If these IRS election-year appeals did not reach Falwell, they are available on the tax agency’s website. It might behoove Falwell to read, re-read or take to heart the IRS warnings and while he is at it to study carefully another IRS document called “Political and Lobbying Activities,” which may also be obtained from the IRS website.
If Falwell flouts federal law, says AU’s Lynn, “we’ll be watching and we stand ready to take action.”