Religious Right Pushes Churches to Openly Defy the Law and Campaign for Tea Party and Other Conservative Candidates
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Religious Right groups, however, persist in saying that houses of worship are “persecuted” in America because they cannot engage in partisan politics while retaining tax exemption.
The American people aren’t buying it. Polls have repeatedly shown that most Americans oppose pulpit politicking. A 2008 poll by LifeWay Research, a firm connected to the Southern Baptist Convention, found that a whopping 75 percent of Americans do not believe “it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office.”
Nevertheless, the ADF plows ahead. In its haste to promote church politicking, the organization has sometimes not shown good judgment. In April, a top ADF attorney named Erik Stanley appeared on a shortwave radio program called “TruNews” hosted by a West Palm Beach, Fla., pastor named Rick Wiles. Wiles made a number of extreme statements during the program.
According to Wiles, President Barack Obama’s name is really “Barry Soetoro,” and he “obviously hates Christianity, hates evangelical Christians” and is the “most anti-Christ man ever in the White House.”
Wiles went on to claim that a “massive fireball” was seen in Wisconsin after a federal judge in that state, Barbara Crabb, ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. He also made fun of Crabb’s appearance, saying she “looks like a flaming feminist – her hair’s shorter than mine.”
When Wiles finally got around to talking about church politicking, he was no less fanatical. He informed Stanley that some years ago, the head of a large accounting firm told him that the Internal Revenue Service maintains two lists of churches – those that accept tax exemption and those called “constitutional churches.” The IRS will put a church on the right list if you just ask, he explained.
Wiles added that if the IRS ever dared enforce the restriction on politicking “it really could provoke an uprising in this country.”
To these stunning assertions, Stanley only muttered, “Hmmmm.”
Wiles’ claims of “constitutional churches,” while bizarre, is catching on in certain extreme quarters of the Religious Right. A largely Internet-based movement has arisen of pastors who assert that their churches are “unregistered” – and thus, they claim, the IRS has no authority over them.
South Dakota pastor Williams seems to accept these ideas. During his conversation with Americans United, he insisted that although his church is tax exempt, it is not organized under IRS Section 501(c)(3). The IRS, he said, cannot stop him from endorsing candidates.
Other pastors apparently share this view. After Americans United reported Liberty Baptist Tabernacle to the IRS, it received an e-mail from the Rev. Gregory Lowrey of Ferndale, Mich., who runs a group called UBU Ministries.
Lowrey contends that churches that don’t register with the IRS are free to endorse candidates and engage in other political activities. His argument is echoed on a number of Web sites purporting to represent “unregistered” or “free” churches.
Does this argument have any validity in federal tax law?
Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has written extensively on the issue of churches and taxation. She told Church & State that so-called “unrecognized” churches don’t exist.
“There is no such category,” Aprill said. “Some of these people just honestly believe they have a constitutional right to do this.”
AU’s Lynn advised religious leaders to be cautious in this area – and to take advice only from reputable sources.
“Pastors who choose to listen to Religious Right extremists or self-appointed tax experts on the Internet instead of the IRS are playing a dangerous game,” said Lynn.