Presidential candidate Al Gore's recent appeal for campaign support from pastors could get churches in legal trouble, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In a letter to Gore today, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that federal tax law bars churches from involvement in partisan politics and asked the candidate to clarify his views on the subject.
According to an Oct. 15 report in The New York Times, Gore participated in a conference call with African-American ministers Oct. 14 during which he discussed the need for their support of your campaign. The Times story states, "With the presidential election in a dead heat, Vice President Al Gore sought to mobilize his campaign's 'get out the vote' drive today by imploring black preachers to push for his election from their pulpits."
The Times says Gore told pastors, "I'm asking you in your sermons to do the work of the Lord here on earth. I ask for your help in getting that message out urgently tomorrow."
AU's Lynn found the newspaper report troubling.
"If the Times report is accurate," Lynn wrote Gore, "you appear to be asking religious leaders to endorse your candidacy from the pulpit. This is highly inappropriate, since it could put the tax-exempt status of those churches at risk. While church leaders may, acting as private citizens, endorse you or any other candidate, they may not do so in their official capacity as pastors.
"As I'm sure you know," Lynn continued, "federal tax law states that churches and other non-profit organizations may not endorse or oppose candidates for political office. While churches are free to register voters, encourage voter turnout and take other nonpartisan political actions, they may not endorse candidates."
Concluded Lynn, "I believe it is imperative that your campaign issue a statement clarifying this matter and explain what your specific intentions were. Churches should never be encouraged to do anything that may be illegal or that may put their tax exemptions at risk. To avoid further confusion, you ought to state that publicly."
Americans United has waged a nationwide campaign in recent years to educate churches about the parameters of federal tax law regarding nonprofit organizations and politics. The group recently sent an advisory to 285,000 churches across the country offering detailed legal information on the subject.
Based in Washington, D.C., Americans United is a church-state watchdog group that educates Americans about the First Amendment's religious liberty provisions. Founded in 1947, AU represents some 60,000 individual members, as well as 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.