Partisan Politicking By Tax-Exempt Churches Is Not Constitutionally Protected, AU Tells Court

Churches do not have a constitutional right to endorse political candidates and still keep their federal tax exemption, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Oct. 26, Americans United argued that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment does not entitle churches to do partisan politicking while maintaining tax-exempt status.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU executive director, "Houses of worship have broad constitutional protections, but they cannot hide behind the First Amendment when they engage in blatantly partisan politics."

The case at issue concerns the Church at Pierce Creek, a Binghamton, N.Y., congregation that bought full-page advertisements in the 1992 presidential election opposing candidate Bill Clinton.

Americans United filed a complaint against the church with the Internal Revenue Service citing the provisions of federal tax law barring partisan involvement by tax-exempt groups. The IRS later revoked the church's tax exemption.

TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice filed suit, challenging the IRS action. However, U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled March 30 that the tax agency's conduct was in accordance with federal law and did not violate the church's constitutional rights. (Click here to read the decision)

The Branch Ministries v. Rossotti case is now before the federal appeals court.

Said AU's Lynn, "Pat Robertson is salivating at the prospect of turning sanctuaries into smoke-filled rooms. But the courts and the Constitution will not let him get away with it."

The Americans United brief was prepared by Americans United attorneys Steven K. Green and Ayesha Khan.

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.