Federal Court Upholds Revocation Of Tax Exemption Of New York Church For Partisan Politicking

Nation will miss 'great advocate of church-state separation and freedom of conscience,' says AU leader

A federal court acted appropriately when it ruled that a New York church that engaged in blatant partisan politicking deserved to have its tax exemption revoked, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United, a national watchdog group that filed the original 1992 complaint against the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y., applauded the decision as a victory for church-state separation and common sense.

"This decision is a major blow to TV preacher Pat Robertson and other Religious Right leaders who have tried to politicize churches," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

"This landmark ruling sends a strong message that churches must obey the prohibition on partisan politicking if they expect to remain tax exempt," added Lynn. "From now on, houses of worship that consider risking their tax exemption to get involved in electioneering had better realize that it's a gamble they're likely to lose.

"We're going to continue to monitor these activities and report offenders to the IRS until people realize that America's churches are not to be manipulated for partisan political purposes," concluded Lynn.

The New York church jumped into partisan politics in late October 1992 by running full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Times urging people not to vote for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Headlined "Christian Beware," the ad faulted Clinton for "promoting policies that are in rebellion to God's laws." The ads also included an appeal for tax-deductible donations to defray the cost of placing the ads.

Americans United reported the incident to the Internal Revenue Service, which conducted an investigation. In 1995, the federal agency revoked the church's tax-exempt status, saying it had run afoul of tax law that forbids non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates.

The church received legal assistance from TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, but Judge Paul Friedman supported the action taken by the IRS in his ruling issued yesterday.

"The IRS clearly may revoke the tax-exempt status of any organization that publishes an advertisement in opposition to a candidate for public office," Friedman wrote in his decision.

Friedman went on to say that the Pierce Creek activities were the most blatant on record, and that there was no evidence of any previous instance "in which a church so brazenly claimed responsibility for a political advertisement in a national newspaper and solicited tax-deductible donations for that political advertisement."

Said AU's Lynn, "Pierce Creek had a simple choice: work as a non-partisan, tax-exempt church or engage in partisan politicking and forfeit its tax exemption. The church's leaders can't have their cake and eat it too.

Lynn also noted that this case, Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, was not about the free speech rights of churches.

"Churches have every right to speak out on important issues of the day, but that's not what was involved in this case," Lynn concluded. "This is about an illegal effort by a church to oppose a candidate for public office. If a church wants to be tax exempt, it has to be non-partisan. That's the law. It's impossible to reasonably argue that taking out a full-page political advertisement urging people to vote against a candidate is non-partisan."

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.