The Internal Revenue Service should investigate the Third New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit for violating federal tax law by urging members to vote against Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush in Michigan's GOP primary, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
In a letter to the IRS sent Feb. 22, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that on Feb. 20 the Rev. E.L. Branch, Third New Hope's pastor, encouraged congregants to vote against Bush in today's primary.
According to press accounts, Branch told parishioners that Michigan Gov. John Engler supports Bush and said, "Our governor wants to see a certain candidate do well in Michigan. His name rhymes with 'Hush.' Don't vote for him. Our governor has not made us happy. We should not make him too happy. I want him to be upset Wednesday morning, like he keeps me upset. Like he keeps you upset."
Wrote Lynn in his letter to the IRS, "This statement appears to be a clear example of opposition to Gov. Bush. The Internal Revenue Code forbids non-profit groups, which includes houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns and issuing statements in support of or opposition to any candidate for public office."
Lynn also noted in his letter that Branch's statements appear to have been part of an organized campaign in some churches to intervene in the GOP primary and affect its outcome. (The Michigan Republican Party allows independents and Democrats to vote in the GOP primary.) He enclosed a Feb. 22 article from The Washington Times reporting that, "Members of other Detroit churches reported hearing similar sermons" on behalf of Bush's main rival, U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Under IRS rules, houses of worship and other non-profit organizations are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The provision, found in section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, is designed in part to prevent tax-exempt churches from being used for partisan political purposes.
"Houses of worship have no business intervening in partisan politics in this manner," said Lynn. "Simply stated, it's not the job of churches to help anyone get elected to public office or to see that certain candidates are defeated."
Americans United runs a special election-year effort called "Project Fair Play." Under the project, Americans United seeks to educate churches about the dangers of intervening in partisan politics. In cases of serious abuses of the law, AU reports the offender to the IRS.
The IRS has signaled an increasing willingness to enforce the law. In 1995, it revoked the tax exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek, a New York congregation that paid for full-page newspaper ads in late October of 1992, advising people that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin.
The Church at Pierce Creek sued unsuccessfully in federal court to win back its tax exemption. During the legal proceedings, the IRS stated that it has launched investigations of 31 houses of worship over allegations of partisan politicking.
Americans United is a non-partisan organization that works to protect religious freedom by defending the separation of church and state. Founded in 1947, the group has 60,000 members nationwide and is based in Washington, D.C.
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.