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Religious Right Groups Want Pastors to Cross the Partisan Line and Spark Court Showdown

The nation's most prominent Religious Right legal group is looking for a pastor who will knowingly break the law and spark an IRS penalty.
 
 
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For years, Religious Right groups have complained about the federal tax law that forbids houses of worship and other tax-exempt groups to intervene in political campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates.

Several organizations pushed Congress to change the statute, without success. The Religious Right suffered another setback in 2000, when a federal appeals court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the tax law.

Now the nation’s best-funded and most prominent Religious Right legal group is gearing up for another go in court – once it finds a plaintiff who will knowingly break the law and spark an Internal Revenue Service penalty.

The Wall Street Journal reported May 9 that the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) has started a campaign to urge pastors to discuss candidates for public office from the pulpit, hoping to spark a new test case. The ADF, founded by James Dobson and other religious broadcasters in 1993, claims that about 80 ministers have expressed interest so far.

The newspaper reported that the ADF “hopes 40 or 50 houses of worship will take part in the action, including clerics from liberal-leaning congregations.” Erik Stanley, the ADF’s senior legal counsel, claims that dozens of religious leaders have already expressed interest in taking part in the Sept. 28 event, dubbed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

One of them is the Rev. Steve Riggle, senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston.

“The government should not be telling the church what it should or should not be saying,” Riggle said. Riggle told The Journal that he announced from the pulpit in March that he was supporting former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the Texas Republican primary.

“As a pastor, a private citizen, I can speak for myself,” Riggle said. “The IRS cannot quench my voice.”

Riggle later used church letterhead to endorse a Republican candidate in a special congressional election, an action that led Americans United for Separation of Church and State to file a formal complaint with the IRS.

Americans United also condemned the ADF plan.

Said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, “This is a truly deplorable scheme. Federal tax law rightly requires churches and other tax-exempt groups to use their resources for religious and charitable purposes, not partisan politics. When the faithful put their hard-earned dollars in the collection plate, they don’t expect it to wind up pushing some politician’s campaign.

“The Religious Right leaders who lust for political power in America will apparently stop at nothing, not even the sacred character of the church,” Lynn continued. “The vast majority of clergy do not seek to turn their incense-filled sanctuaries into smoke-filled political backrooms.

“I think very few clergy will yield to the Alliance Defense Fund’s worldly temptation,” Lynn said. “And those who do will find their churches’ tax exemptions in jeopardy. I assume the ADF will provide a list of congregations unwise enough to join this move, and we’ll be ready to report those churches to the IRS.”

Lynn said clergy know they are free to speak out on religious, moral and political issues. But they cannot use tax-exempt resources to support or oppose candidates for public office, which includes statements from the pulpit by church officials and other indications of campaign intervention.

The ADF is apparently coordinating its scheme with other Religious Right organizations. On April 22, Kenyn Cureton, the Family Research Council’s vice president for church ministries, appeared on Religious Right activist Janet Folger’s “Faith2Action” radio program, discussing his organization’s plans for mobilizing pastors this year. Cureton, a former official with the Southern Baptist Convention, vowed to urge pastors to “cross the line.”

Cureton’s comment occurred after Folger mentioned that some members of her church were thinking of voting for U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“It just seems to me that the messages are somehow not reaching the congregations,” Folger said. “Is it the pastors that need to speak more clearly? What’s the answer?”

“I think that’s the case,” Cureton replied. “The pastors need to speak clearly about it. I’ll tell you we are working with the Alliance Defense Fund on a series of sermons this fall for pastors to preach, so that they educate their people on the issues.

“We’re gonna be talking about the value of life, the value of family and the value of freedom,” he continued, “basically talking about abortion and stem-cell research and then also about the gay agenda and then finally about our Christian heritage and how it’s being stripped from every corner of society. And then finally we’re gonna be doing a candidate comparison message that is going to ask pastors to cross the line.”

“Really?” said Folger. “What do you mean ‘cross the line’? You’re going to be suggesting they tell people who to vote for?”

Cureton replied, “We’re going to prompt pastors, and say to them that, you know, we really believe that they need to challenge some of the things, some of the thinking that we have going on in our society, which is that separation of church and state doctrine, that we really need to preach the Bible on these issues and apply them to the things that are going on in the culture today.”

Other organizations have indicated they would like to challenge the IRS regulation. Last year, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty ran a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal trumpeting the claims of a minister in the Midwest who insisted he had violated the law and challenging the IRS to act. (The ploy turned out to be a publicity stunt to promote a Becket Fund Web site.)

Americans United says Religious Right groups should not be so eager to get this matter back into the courts because they will likely lose. In May of 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously that the IRS acted legally when it stripped a New York church of its tax-exempt status for running a 1992 newspaper ad advising people that voting for Bill Clinton was a sin.

The church in the Branch Ministries v. Rossotti case was defended by TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice. The three judges were all Reagan appointees, and the opinion in the case was written by James Buckley, brother of the late conservative icon and pundit William F. Buckley.

Why is the Religious Right so eager to ramp up church-based politicking? One reason may be that the organizations are terrified that their Republican allies will face setbacks in this November’s elections. They see mobilizing the party’s fundamentalist base through churches as crucial to brightening the GOP’s electoral fortunes.

The scheme is already running into stiff opposition from religious leaders who do not want to see America’s pulpits politicized.

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, told the Associated Press that partisan activity can “compromise the essential calling to spread the Gospel.”

“The church can’t raise a prophetic fist at a candidate or at a party when it’s locked up in a tight bear hug with that candidate or party,” Walker said.

Evangelical leader Os Guinness, who has been involved in a recent effort to mobilize evangelicals and tamp down partisan politics in that community, was also critical.

Guinness told American Prospect blogger Sarah Posner that the ADF’s campaign is “a sign of Christian weakness, not of strength.” He referred to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who noted the power of evangelical churches in pre-Civil War America in his famous tome Democracy in America.

“Pastors did not need to politically engage, because they taught the Bible, and their lay people carried it out in public life…,”Guinness said. “It’s precisely because we have such a weakness of faith integrated with life that you have to call pastors to actually electioneer….Good pastors can preach the entire Bible all the time without any constitutional problem.”
Americans United will monitor the ADF project and report any church whose pastor steps over the line into partisanship.

Rob Boston is associate editor for Church & State magazine.

 
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