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 the revocation of tax-exempt status that followed its running of a newspaper advertisement criticizing then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, the recent court decision spelled out how churches can take political action without breaking the law. Tucked away in the Washington, D.C., appeals court verdict last month was the ruling that a church can establish an affiliate 501(c) (4) organization or civic league, which may in turn form a Political Action Committee (PAC) that can "promote political causes." The PAC has to raise money independently from its "parent" church. The income is tax-exempt, but contributions 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 "a blueprint for churches to express their beliefs in a political context. This is an important decision that will set the legal tone for future involvement of churches in the political arena." The "groundbreaking" ruling was also welcomed by the Center for Justice and Equality, a Tampa, Fla.-based Christian political watchdog group. Chairman Edward Mullen said: "This decision cries out to churches around the
country to start getting involved in the critical issues of our day and start taking responsibility to turn our country around." The legal fight began after Pierce Creek--now known as The Landmark Church--paid for an open letter in "USA Today" during the 1992 presidential campaign. It challenged then-Gov. Clinton's position on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and referenced biblical passages opposing his views. When the IRS pulled the church's tax-exempt status for its political campaigning, the ACLJ took the case. Attorneys argued that the decision denied the church's right to free speech and that it had been unfairly singled out, as liberal churches involved in political issues had not been penalized. Although the appeals court upheld the original IRS decision, the ruling also noted that the IRS stand was "symbolic, more than substantial" because the church was not liable for taxes on donations. In fact, Pierce Creek has not paid any taxes to the IRS to date. Mark Troobnick, senior litigation counsel with the ACLJ, said that the court ruling was a "sea change, not only for churches but for 501(c) (3)s in general. Many nonprofits are looking at this because it represents a very different standard than the IRS previously had established." He added: "In a way we are disappointed for our client, but since there's no substantive impact on their ability to be a church and receive donations and they don't have to pay taxes, and we have set forth for us a method by which churches can express themselves politically without fear of IRS repercussions, we are encouraged." Mullen said the days of churches being afraid to speak out on political issues for fear of losing their tax-exempt status were over. "We need to start taking advantage of the freedom we have. Churches have a moral and spiritual obligation to do what they can to reverse the social trends that have occurred in our country in recent years."
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