Charisma News Service -- A New York state congregation's battle with the Internal Revenue Service(IRS) over tax-exempt status has produced what is being hailed as a major breakthrough giving churches a political voice.Although Pierce Creek Church in Binghamton lost its appeal against therevocation of tax-exempt status that followed its running of a newspaperadvertisement criticizing then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, therecent court decision spelled out how churches can take political actionwithout breaking the law.Tucked away in the Washington, D.C., appeals court verdict last month wasthe ruling that a church can establish an affiliate 501(c) (4) organizationor civic league, which may in turn form a Political Action Committee (PAC)that can "promote political causes." The PAC has to raise moneyindependently from its "parent" church. The income is tax-exempt, butcontributions are not tax-deductible.Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice(ACLJ), which represented Pierce Creek, said that the ruling provided "ablueprint for churches to express their beliefs in a political context. Thisis an important decision that will set the legal tone for future involvementof churches in the political arena."The "groundbreaking" ruling was also welcomed by the Center for Justiceand Equality, a Tampa, Fla.-based Christian political watchdog group.Chairman Edward Mullen said: "This decision cries out to churches around thecountry to start getting involved in the critical issues of our day andstart taking responsibility to turn our country around."The legal fight began after Pierce Creek--now known as The LandmarkChurch--paid for an open letter in "USA Today" during the 1992 presidentialcampaign. It challenged then-Gov. Clinton's position on issues such asabortion and homosexuality, and referenced biblical passages opposing hisviews.When the IRS pulled the church's tax-exempt status for its politicalcampaigning, the ACLJ took the case. Attorneys argued that the decisiondenied the church's right to free speech and that it had been unfairlysingled out, as liberal churches involved in political issues had not beenpenalized.Although the appeals court upheld the original IRS decision, the rulingalso noted that the IRS stand was "symbolic, more than substantial" becausethe church was not liable for taxes on donations. In fact, Pierce Creek hasnot paid any taxes to the IRS to date.Mark Troobnick, senior litigation counsel with the ACLJ, said that thecourt ruling was a "sea change, not only for churches but for 501(c) (3)s ingeneral. Many nonprofits are looking at this because it represents a verydifferent standard than the IRS previously had established."He added: "In a way we are disappointed for our client, but since there'sno substantive impact on their ability to be a church and receive donationsand they don't have to pay taxes, and we have set forth for us a method bywhich churches can express themselves politically without fear of IRSrepercussions, we are encouraged."Mullen said the days of churches being afraid to speak out on politicalissues for fear of losing their tax-exempt status were over. "We need tostart taking advantage of the freedom we have. Churches have a moral andspiritual obligation to do what they can to reverse the social trends thathave occurred in our country in recent years."