Americans United Announces National Campaign To Alert Churches To The Dangers Of Partisan Politicking

Watchdog Group's Campaign Will Counter Religious Right Leader James Dobson's Plan For A Church-Based Political Machine

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today announced a national campaign to inform churches about federal tax law forbidding partisan politicking by tax-exempt groups.

The Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group said it will mail a special election-year alert to all houses of worship in 11 states, reminding them that intervention in partisan political campaigns is a violation of the Internal Revenue Service Code.

The letters, totaling over 117,000, begin mailing today and will be sent to every house of worship in Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri and Virginia.

Churches in those states are being targeted by James Dobson and other Religious Right leaders who want to build a church-based political machine on behalf of favored Republican candidates.

“Dragging churches into partisan politics is just plain wrong,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “It violates tax law, it damages the integrity of religion and it harms our democracy. 

“Dobson and other Religious Right leaders want to politicize America’s pulpits,” Lynn continued. “I urge religious leaders not to go along with it. Houses of worship that get drawn into Dobson’s political machine could emerge with their tax-exempt status severely mangled.”

In August, Religious Right leader Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF) appealed to supporters in eight states to mobilize evangelical Christian churches before the November elections. The e-mail said the group’s state affiliates will lead the project and asked for volunteers to serve as county coordinators and church coordinators. Pastors will be asked to give political sermons, and churches will be encouraged to hand out voter guides.

The Dobson effort focuses on states with hotly contested congressional and gubernatorial races. The FOF e-mail said, “In 2004, about 25 million evangelicals failed to vote. Now is the time to reverse the trend.”

In a press conference at the National Press Club today, Americans United’s Lynn, who is a United Church of Christ minister, warned pastors to be wary of the FOF overture. He noted that Dobson is increasingly acting as a Republican political operative. Dobson communicates regularly with GOP congressional leaders and White House staff, he endorses GOP candidates and he takes credit for the defeat of former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Lynn said religious leaders need to be especially wary of the voter guides that will be produced by FOF affiliates, since the IRS has warned churches about distributing voter guides produced by outside groups. Lynn said the FOF guides are almost certain to be partisan material that seeks to portray Dobson’s preferred candidates in a favorable light while disparaging their opponents.

“Biased voter guides have no place in houses of worship, period,” Lynn said.

In clear cases of violations of federal tax law, Lynn said, Americans United will not hesitate to ask the IRS to intervene.

AU’s mailing to counter the Dobson effort includes all of his targeted states (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota, Montana and Tennessee) and adds three others (Texas, Virginia and Missouri) that have shown evidence of church-based political organizing.

Lynn noted that the IRS is paying special attention to violations of the tax code by non-profit groups this year. The agency has formed a “Political Activity Compliance Initiative” and has vowed to respond swiftly to violations.

In public speeches, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson has said that the very integrity of tax-exempt entities is at stake. His comments followed a report by the tax agency showing that many of the non-profits being investigated for violations during the last election cycle are churches.

In addition to the mass mailing to churches, AU’s Web site (www.au.org) will feature updated materials on church-based politicking prepared by Marcus Owens of the Washington, D.C., firm of Caplin & Drysdale. Owens is the former director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS.

AU’s 75,000 members nationwide will also be given a copy of the letter to religious leaders and asked to copy and mail it to houses of worship in their community. Thus, the effort will reach religious leaders in all 50 states.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.