Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell's election-year project is a partisan political scheme that warrants an Internal Revenue Service investigation, according to a national church-state watchdog group.
Today, Falwell formally launched his "People of Faith 2000" project, an initiative he claims will raise up to $25 million to register 10 million religious conservatives between now and November. The effort is a project of Falwell's new tax-exempt organization, the Liberty Alliance Institute, a spin-off group of his Jerry Falwell Ministries, that will distribute voter registration materials to pastors and individual church members.
Federal law prohibits tax-exempt institutions from conducting voter registration drives in a partisan manner. Based on Falwell's own remarks, there can be little doubt that the "People of Faith 2000" project is a scheme to help elect presidential candidate George W. Bush and other Republican candidates, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group and longtime critic of Falwell.
At a news briefing today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said, "Jerry Falwell is abusing tax-exempt religious ministries to push a partisan political agenda. This project is not a noble campaign designed to simply register more Americans to vote. It is a highly partisan drive that Falwell admits is intended to help put Gov. Bush in the White House."
Falwell admitted his partisan motivation for the project in an interview with USA Today published on March 23. "It is my experience that most people of faith in this country vote pro-family, pro-life, and that will mean George W. Bush," Falwell said in describing the importance of his project. "If I'm right, the Republicans are going to feel a very positive result from this from the top to the bottom of the ticket."
Additionally, Falwell told Beliefnet.com, an online religion news website, that he introduced his election year project quickly because "another four years of Clinton-Gore would devastate this country."
In fact, Falwell has made no effort to hide his enthusiasm for Bush. On March 3, Falwell told supporters, "[W]e must have unity if we hope to win in November. The goal, as we all know, is to ensure that Al Gore does not sit in the Oval Office come January." On March 16, he told a national television audience he supports Bush "all the way." While giving his opinion of the Log Cabin Republicans (a gay GOP group), Falwell told CNN on March 5, "I think that they're living an immoral lifestyle, but I'd much rather they vote for George Bush than Al Gore."
AU's Lynn said, "Falwell is free to support Republicans as an individual, but trying to use churches and tax-exempt ministries for this purpose is deceitful and probably illegal."
Despite the obviously partisan agenda of the project, Falwell has acknowledged that he has already raised $1 million for the effort from business interests that have been offered a tax deduction because the money has been raised through Falwell's tax-exempt organization.
"This stinks to high heaven," Lynn added. "As Falwell is well aware, tax-deductible donations to a religious ministry are not supposed to be diverted to partisan political projects. This warrants an immediate investigation."
Lynn also noted that there is a precedent for the IRS severely penalizing a tax-exempt group that undertook a campaign similar to Falwell's project.
In 1990 the IRS revoked the tax exemption of a non-profit group (whose name is kept confidential by the IRS) that sought to register conservative voters in advance of the 1984 election. The organization had stated that its goal was to register 1 million conservative voters as part of an effort to re-elect Ronald Reagan, and the IRS determined this to be unlawful intervention in a political campaign.
Falwell already has a history of sidestepping federal tax law prohibitions concerning churches and politics. The Internal Revenue Service punished Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour in 1993 when it discovered that funds were illegally funneled from Falwell's group to a political action committee. Falwell was forced to pay $50,000 and the Old Time Gospel Hour's tax-exempt status was pulled retroactively for 1986-87.
"No religious leader should take legal advice from someone who obviously has trouble following the law himself," Lynn concluded. "Falwell may be desperate to regain political power and influence, but using religious groups and ignoring tax law is the wrong way to do it."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship 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.