March 24, 2002

Tonight, Mount Peace Baptist Church in Raleigh will welcome Wake County Sheriff John Baker to a special evening program. The church will honor the popular sheriff and salute him for "the outstanding services he has provided," according to an invitation signed by the pastor, J. Vincent Terry Sr.

"Please help us to continue our support of Sheriff Baker in his re-election efforts," Terry wrote. "All proceeds will be contributed to the Committee to Re-elect Sheriff John H. Baker Jr."

The church's plans, however, could jeopardize its tax-exempt status. And they place the church in the middle of a national debate over what role religious organizations should be allowed to play in political campaigns.

The Internal Revenue Service does not allow congregations and other tax-exempt organization to endorse candidates and spend money to help elect them without losing their tax-exempt status. But some Congressional and religious leaders want to see those rules changed. Meanwhile, one Raleigh church, St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal, already has been reported to the IRS for improperly taking up a collection for Baker last September.

Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said Mount Peace Baptist's support of Baker crosses the line. "It's a blatant violation of federal tax law. If the church goes ahead and proceeds, it's inviting intense IRS scrutiny."

Contacted Friday afternoon, the church's pastor said despite the letter there would be no collection. "If they are led to give after the service, they can," said Terry. "But there will be no offering as part of the service."

A bill pending in the House Ways and Means Committee could ease the pressure on religious organizations. Bill HR-2357, recently introduced by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican from Farmville, would allow houses of worship to endorse candidates and raise money on their behalf. The bill has the support of 112 co-sponsors, all but three of them Republican.

Jones said the IRS rules silence clergy members from speaking their minds on important political issues. He said congregations vigorously supported political candidates before 1954 when then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson pushed a little-noticed law through Congress barring ministers from making political endorsements.

"For me, it's a First Amendment issue," said Jones, who hopes the Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on it in May. "Prior to 1954, a rabbi, priest or minister could say anything they wanted to say. This [bill] is simply trying to return free speech to churches and synagogues."

Jones said he became interested in the issue when a parishioner at St. Paul Catholic Church in New Bern, N.C., contacted him after his pastor refused to post an item in the church bulletin notifying members of George Bush's and Al Gore's positions on abortion back in 2000. So far, Jones has persuaded plenty of religious leaders to support the bill, including Pat Robertson, the television evangelist, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But groups that monitor the government, such as the Office of Management and Budget Watch, warn that the bill would create a loophole for soft money. Now that the Senate has approved an overhaul of the nation's campaign finance law, Jones' bill, if it passes, would open up a new funding spigot by allowing congregations to make political contributions that are fully tax-deductible.

"This bill is much broader than churches making political endorsements," said Kay Guinane, a lawyer at the Office of Management and Budget Watch. "It would allow congregations to spend money on candidates, do phone banks, print bumper stickers. Do we want people to get out of paying taxes for political contributions?"

The lawyer who drafted the bill, Colby May, said it allows only an insubstantial amount of a congregation's budget to be spent on political campaigns, about 5 percent. The IRS already has similar language in a related portion of the tax code that allows nonprofit groups to spend between 5 percent and 20 percent of their budgets on lobbying.

"There's no intention or desire to allow churches to become involved in the campaign finance reform debate," said May, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice, a firm representing conservative political causes. "People don't give money to a church in order to give money to a candidate. Anyone who believes that is living in fantasyland."

Church-state watchdog groups aren't so sure. They say many churches violate the law, and the IRS rarely intervenes. The last time the IRS revoked a church's tax-exempt status was in 1995, three years after the Church of Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., took out an advertisement in USA Today urging people not to vote for former President Bill Clinton.

In 1999, after a decade of review, the IRS also concluded that the Christian Coalition's voter guides were too partisan for it to keep its tax-exempt status. Donations to the coalition are no longer tax-deductible. And while religious overtures into politics have a long history, a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that, by more than three-to-one, Americans reject the idea that churches and other houses of worship should endorse political candidates.

Predominantly white, mainline Protestants were the most adamant, with 78 percent opposing clergy endorsements of political candidates. Black Protestants felt the same, but by a smaller margin: 58 percent opposed clergy endorsements. The nationwide survey of 2,000 adults was conducted between Feb. 25 and March 10. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2.5 percent.

"We have persons in our congregation who are Democrats, Republicans and Independents," said the Rev. Paul Anderson, the pastor of Baptist Grove Church. "You need to recognize the diversity of people in your midst."

Indeed, many pastors worry that endorsing candidates would drive a wedge through most churches and divide congregants along political lines. It might also undermine the separation of church and state when congregations are seen to be extensions of a particular political party.

"It begins a process by which religious institutions and government institutions become linked," said the Rev. Thomas Jackson, pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church. "That linkage can be problematic."

Even pastors known for inviting candidates to speak from the pulpit and engage in supporting conservative moral causes said they were wary of the bill. "My gut-level, knee-jerk reaction is to be skeptical of it," said the Rev. Tom Vestal of Mount Olivet Baptist, which welcomed U.S. Senate hopeful Elizabeth Dole to speak from the pulpit last October.

"I don't think the church should be accused of being a political entity when it's primary purpose is to spread the Gospel."

Others argue that while churches should not endorse candidates, the government should not deny them the opportunity to do so. Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the tax code, in effect, bars churches from defining their mission.

"We don't think the government should be telling churches what to do," said Land. "It's for us to decide, not the government." Still, even if the bill passes, Land said he would recommend that Baptist churches not endorse candidates.

"We will continue to urge our churches not to do it," said Land. "It's not an appropriate role for the church."

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