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Religious Right Pushes Churches to Openly Defy the Law and Campaign for Tea Party and Other Conservative Candidates

As organizations that claim tax-exempt status, churches cannot directly intervene in elections. A religious right group is trying to change that.
 
 
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When South Dakota gubernatorial hopeful Gordon Howie put out a call for pastors to endorse him from the pulpit, the Rev. H. Wayne Williams was quick to respond.

Williams, pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City, endorsed the Republican candidate during a church service on May 16.

An ecstatic Howie, the self-professed “Tea Party” favorite, quickly issued a press release praising the action.

“Last week, Howie challenged South Dakota churches and their pastors to become more politically active in the stretch run to the June 8th primary election, urging pastors to endorse candidates and advocate specific issues from the pulpit,” read the Howie media statement. “Reverend H. Wayne Williams, Pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City, became one of the first to accept the challenge, adding an official endorsement of Gordon Howie for Governor to a message delivered during his Sunday night services.”

The release quoted Williams, who said, “I believe Gordon Howie has clearly demonstrated the courage of character and conviction to take a position that has long been forgotten and lost in this country. I’m glad that this issue has been brought to the forefront of public conversation. It is high time that churches return to the role that they’ve occupied historically in guiding their flocks in making election decisions.”

But not everyone agrees with this kind of blatant church electioneering. Williams seems to have been the only pastor to endorse Howie from the pulpit, and several South Dakota religious leaders spoke out publicly against pulpit partisanship.

Among them was Howie’s own pastor, Bishop Lorenzo Kelly of Faith Temple Church in Rapid City.

“I have encouraged our people to be participants in the political arena and showed them the scriptures that back it up,” Kelly told the Rapid City Journal. “But I have not from the pulpit endorsed him. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t put my church in jeopardy of anything.”

South Dakota voters were also not impressed. On Election Day, Howie, a state senator running against four other Republicans, took fourth place with just 12 percent of the primary vote.

The church endorsement scheme was also legally problematic. Federal law prohibits all non-profit organizations that hold 501(c)(3) status from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The Internal Revenue Service has repeatedly reminded churches to stay out of elections.

Nevertheless, some pastors continue to insist they have a right to tell their congregants which candidates to vote for or against. They are often aided and abetted by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an Arizona-based Religious Right legal group founded by right-wing television and radio preachers in 1993.

Alerted by members in South Dakota, Americans United began investigating the Williams affair. In early June, an Americans United staffer contacted Williams. He not only admitted that he had endorsed Howie during a church service but brazenly asserted that the IRS has no authority over him or his church. He was defiant and argumentative.

On June 10, Americans United filed a formal complaint with the IRS over Williams’ actions.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn pointed out that Williams has admitted that he violated the law by endorsing Howie.

“Furthermore, he asserted that the IRS has no authority over his church and that he has a legal right to endorse candidates from the pulpit,” wrote Lynn to the federal tax agency. “Liberty Baptist Tabernacle appears to be in clear violation of federal law. Accordingly, I am asking the IRS to investigate this matter and enforce the law as necessary.”

Although Williams had been combative when he talked with Americans United, the complaint may have given him pause. The minister quickly began backpedaling after the IRS complaint became public, and his story suddenly became fuzzy.

“I simply preach from the pulpit principles, and when someone stands with our principles, I say this person is standing with the same principles we stand on and are worthy of our consideration,” Williams told the Associated Press. “I told them vote on the basis of your own conscience.”

In an interview with the Journal, Williams took an even more curious tack: He insisted that his church never sought 501(c)(3) status, and, although he admitted the church is tax exempt, he claimed the IRS has no power over him.

Williams also lit into Americans United.

“I know for a fact the organization is not a friend to churches,” Williams said.

The pastor continued, “The whole idea is to intimidate and create fear in people. I don’t operate that way. I fear God. I fear God’s laws. I don’t fear man’s laws.”

The “man’s laws” Williams refers to is a provision that has been part of the Internal Revenue Code since 1954. As the IRS puts it, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

The IRS expands on this on its Web site, giving examples of the types of activities that violate the provision and ones that don’t. One thing is clear: Pastor endorsements from the pulpit or during church services are a violation of the law.

But the ADF and its allies in the Religious Right are working hard to undercut the IRS language. In the ADF’s case, the organization actually prods religious leaders to openly defy the law.

For the past few years, the ADF has sponsored an event it calls “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” during which pastors knowingly break the law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

The initiative is not exactly popular in the religious community. Usually, just a few dozen pastors take part. It is also highly partisan. In 2008 and 2009, all of the religious leaders participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday either endorsed Republicans or attacked Democrats.

This year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday takes place Sept. 26, and the ADF is expanding its focus a bit. The group has been running ads in Christian publications asserting that churches are losing their power to speak out on social issues due to government intrusions.

The ads promote a Web site called speakupmovement.org, which pushes the common Religious Right view that conservative Christians in America are persecuted or punished for their beliefs.

The ADF claims to be standing up for free speech, but in fact the group offers a steady diet of attacks on the separation of church and state.

In June, ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster penned a blog post assailing the “fictitious” church-state wall, which he labeled a “myth.”

“So many people have bought into the myth of strict separation of church and state, and have heard this lie for so long, that they have come to believe it is a bedrock constitutional principle,” Oster wrote.

The ADF’s claim that churches are being silenced is belied by the facts. Religious organizations have wide discretion to speak out on political issues and do it all of the time. This activity is perfectly legal and broadly protected by the Constitution. Churches need only refrain from using their personnel and other resources to promote or attack a specific candidate.

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.

Lynn noted that a New York church lost its tax-exempt status in 1995 after it placed newspaper ads attacking Bill Clinton’s candidacy in 1992. (And lost a court battle to get it back.) In addition, large ministries connected to TV preachers Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell were assessed back taxes for intervening in political races. Other churches have endured audits or other forms of sanctions.

“Americans attend houses of worship for spiritual reasons, not to get a list of political endorsements,” Lynn said. “The sooner the Religious Right accepts this, the better.”

Project Fair Play

For accurate information about church electioneering, visit Americans United’s Web page addressing this issue: http://projectfairplay.org/

Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which publishes Church and State magazine.
 
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