Pastor Politics

Churches endorsing candidates? It could happen, if a 50-year-old tax regulation is overturned.

BY: Michael Kress


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Opponents of the new bill say it's essential to keep the church-state wall where it is--and warn of dire consequences for the political process if the law is changed.

"If you allow it, then there's going to be an effort to politicize every charity, religious and otherwise, anybody that's allowed to do it, in a way that I think doesn't serve the common good. It's good to have organizations that don't have to kowtow to politicians, that aren't going to give them votes in [exchange] for grant money or changes in law or anything else, that are above that partisan political fray," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In debating the bill, both sides invoke the Civil Rights movements. Supporters of the Jones bill say that under current restrictions, Martin Luther King Jr. would have been prevented from getting politically involved. Opponents counter that speaking out on issues--as Dr. King did--is actually allowed under current law.

Given all the heated rhetoric about muzzled ministers, what is currently allowed may seem surprisingly broad: Churches can distribute nonpartisan voter guides; conduct voter-registration drives; invite candidates to speak, so long as they give equal time to opponents; they can also invite public figures--even candidates for office--to speak in a "non-candidate capacity" without equal time for the other side.

In addition to preaching about issues from the pulpit, pastors can get involved in campaigns and endorse candidates--but only as individuals, not as representatives of the church.

And it works the other way as well, with candidates courting churches and religious leaders. Black churches are regular stops for Democratic candidates, and the Bush-Cheney campaign recently sparked controversy by appealing to churches for support, including an attempt by Vice President Cheney to obtain church membership directories. These activities are all allowed under current regulations.

But there is enough ambiguity in the current rules for activists on both sides of the issue to engage in a game of "Gotcha!" over perceived infractions. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has long monitored church political activity and complained--to the churches and the IRS--when they believe the rules have been violated.

In the belief that Americans United and other groups are deliberately targeting conservative churches--while letting liberal and especially black churches off the hook--evangelicals have begun to strike back.

The conservative Religious Freedom Action Coalition recently launched the website

(yes, that's Rat Out a Church) to encourage people to monitor and report liberal churches that engage too deeply in political activity. The group has sent warning letters to dozens of churches and reported one to the IRS: New Birth Baptist Church, an African-American parish in Miami, which hosted former presidential candidate Al Sharpton on Aug. 29. (Americans United likewise called for IRS action against New Birth.)

The IRS would not comment on how often it has investigated or taken action for violations of existing rules. But observers say there have been few such instances, and possibly only one church has actually lost its tax-exempt status. In that case, the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y., took out full-page newspaper ads declaring that a vote for Bill Clinton is a vote for sin.

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