Churches endorsing candidates? It could happen, if a 50-year-old tax regulation is overturned.
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 websitewww.ratoutachurch.org
(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.
In another case, the pastor and former congressman Floyd Flake told the Wall Street Journal he was visited by IRS agents after endorsing Al Gore in 2000 from his pulpit at the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. Flake signed a statement saying he understands the rules and will not violate them again.