Americans United Condemns Religious Right Plot To Politicize Pulpits

Asking Churches To Violate Federal Tax Law Is Deplorable, Says AU's Lynn

A Religious Right group’s plan to ask churches to violate federal tax law on electioneering is deplorable, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is urging clergy to defy the tax-law ban on candidate endorsements by tax-exempt groups. Ministers are being pushed to use their pulpits on Sept. 28 to preach about candidates and spark a showdown.

The ADF, a theocracy-minded legal operation founded by right-wing religious broadcasters, hopes the Internal Revenue Service will launch investigations of these churches, thus opening the door to a federal test case of the constitutionality of the law.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “This is a truly deplorable scheme. Federal tax law rightly requires churches and other tax-exempt groups to use their resources for religious and charitable purposes, not partisan politics. When the faithful put their hard-earned dollars in the collection plate, they don’t expect it to wind up pushing some politician’s campaign.

“The Religious Right leaders who lust for political power in America will apparently stop at nothing, not even the sacred character of the church,” Lynn continued. “The vast majority of clergy do not seek to turn their incense-filled sanctuaries into smoke-filled political backrooms.

“I think very few clergy will yield to the Alliance Defense Fund’s worldly temptation,” Lynn concluded. “And those who do will find their churches’ tax exemptions in jeopardy. I assume the ADF will provide a list of congregations unwise enough to join this move, and we’ll be ready to report those churches to the IRS.”

Lynn noted that clergy know they are free to speak out on religious, moral and political issues. But they cannot use tax-exempt resources to support or oppose candidates for public office, which includes statements from the pulpit by church officials and other indications of campaign intervention.

In May of 2000, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously held that the IRS properly revoked the tax exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek, a congregation near Binghamton, N.Y., that bought newspaper ads in 1992 opposing presidential candidate Bill Clinton. (Americans United filed a complaint with the IRS about this clear violation of tax law.)

The court ruled in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti that “the revocation of the Church’s tax-exempt status neither violated the Constitution nor exceeded the IRS’s statutory authority.” (The three judges were Reagan appointees, and the opinion was written by James Buckley, a scion of the ultra-conservative Buckley family and brother of William F. Buckley.)

Americans United has served as a monitor of the intersection of religion and politics. In response to church politicization efforts, the watchdog group has distributed informational literature to religious leaders about federal tax law. In 80 cases since 1996, Americans United has asked the IRS to investigate apparent electioneering violations of the IRS Code by religious groups.

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.