Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged Texas Gov. Rick Perry to drop a plan to sign two controversial bills into law at a Fort Worth church.
In a letter to Perry (PDF) sent today, Americans United warned that the proposed event is a blatant example of exploiting a house of worship for partisan political purposes and could jeopardize the congregation's tax-exempt status.
Perry plans to sign the bills this Sunday at an event at Calvary Cathedral in Fort Worth. One bill will require minor girls to have written parental consent before they can get an abortion; another certifies a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that will be on the ballot in November.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a letter and e-mail from Perry's campaign said that Perry backers "want to completely fill this location with pro-family Christian friends who can celebrate with us" and said they might film the event for TV political advertising later.
"This is one of the most outrageous misuses of a house of worship for political gain that I've ever seen," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It's of highly dubious legality and could put the church's tax-exemption in jeopardy."
Lynn noted that churches, as tax-exempt entities, are not permitted to endorse candidates for public office. He recommended that the event be canceled.
In the letter to Perry, Lynn wrote, "I urge you, in the strongest terms possible, to drop this plan. Your actions may be putting the tax-exempt status of Calvary Cathedral at risk."
During the 2004 election season, Americans United asked the IRS to investigate 11 houses of worship for endorsing Democratic or Republican candidates. The organization regularly sponsors a project that educates religious leaders about the requirements of federal tax law. Flagrant violators are reported to the IRS for investigation.
In 1992, Americans United complained to the IRS about a New York church that paid for advertisements dealing the presidential election. The congregation later had its tax exemption revoked, and the revocation was upheld by the federal courts.
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.