Southern Baptist Agency Ponders Legally Dubious Partisan Politicking

Broadcast Of Falwell Attack On Gore Could Jeopardize SBC Tax Exemption, Americans United Warns

If an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention broadcasts a Jerry Falwell attack on presidential candidate Al Gore, the denomination's tax exemption could be in jeopardy, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned.

In a letter to the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Americans United said distribution of Falwell's partisan message through the agency's national radio program would violate the federal ban on electioneering by tax-exempt groups.

AU Executive Director Barry W.  Lynn reminded ERLC President Richard Land that the commission "is an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention a tax-exempt religious organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code. Therefore, your agency and its programs are subject to the restrictions governing tax-exempt entities and partisan politics."

The controversy began on June 12, when Land taped an interview with Falwell for the ERLC's "Faith and Family" radio broadcast. During the 44-minute exchange, which took place before an audience at the SBC's national meeting in Orlando, Falwell urged Baptists to reject Gore.

"The American people, I think, sense something right now that we are about to lose America," Falwell said. "Ronald Reagan would not have been president unless Bible-believing Christians in 1979 and 1980 by the millions said, 'We've had enough,' and threw Jimmy Carter out and put Ronald Reagan in, to put it bluntly."

Falwell added, "If we don't do the same thing Nov. 7 with Mr. Gore...and get somebody in there to rebuild the moral values and fabric of this nation, we're going to be in the same mess or worse than we were in 1980."

Due to the partisan nature of Falwell's comments during the interview, AU's Lynn wrote to Land to encourage the ERLC leader not to broadcast the interview and run the risk of violating federal tax law.

"If [Falwell's] comments had been broadcast live, the Commission and the Southern Baptist Convention would probably not be held legally responsible for his opposition to the Gore candidacy," Lynn explained in his June 14 correspondence. "However, since the program was taped for later broadcast, airing it now knowing of its partisan content could put the SBC's tax-exempt status in jeopardy."

Land replied that Lynn's advice would be ignored, and that the interview would broadcast after being edited to 18-20 minutes to fit the show's length. (The "Faith and Family" program is aired daily on the Internet and on 173 radio stations around the country.)

However, despite Land's announcement that the interview would be broadcast in July, it has not yet run.

"I hope Dr. Land has decided not to use the SBC's resources for partisan political purposes," Lynn concluded. "Or perhaps Dr. Land will decide to edit the interview to omit Falwell's reckless partisan rhetoric. Either way, we will continue to follow this matter closely. Based on his response, we will take appropriate action."

The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Since a fundamentalist takeover in 1979, SBC leaders have aligned the group with the Religious Right. In recent years, Falwell has become a prominent voice within the denomination.

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.