WASHINGTON – At least two organizations are monitoring the content of Sunday sermons by U.S. pastors and threatening to report churches to the Internal Revenue Service if they hear political messages they deem inappropriate under federal guidelines on tax-exempt status.
Earlier this week, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, headed by Barry Lynn, filed a complaint with the IRS against Ronnie Floyd, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., accusing him of preaching a sermon promoting President Bush’s re-election July 4.
The complaint challenges the church’s tax-exempt status as a religious organization.
Lynn’s letter to the IRS reads, in part: “The pastor’s description of the candidates’ stands and their personal religious beliefs was obviously aimed at encouraging congregants to cast ballots for Bush. The church is known for its stands on social issues and its opposition to legal abortion and gay rights. By lauding Bush’s stands on these and other issues and attacking (Sen. John) Kerry’s, Floyd was plainly telling his congregation to be sure to vote for Bush.
“I have enclosed a videotape that includes the entire sermon as well as a partial transcript. About 45 minutes into the message, Floyd begins to discuss the differences between Bush and Kerry. Please note that even the imagery employed by the church is designed to promote Bush. A huge photo of Bush is projected onto a screen that shows the president next to an American flag. By contrast, small photos of Kerry are used that show him as one person in a larger crowd. In addition, Bush is shown signing a ban on late-term abortions, an act most church members will laud, while Kerry is shown as one of a group of senators who opposed a law banning same-sex marriage, a stand most church members will likely oppose.”
Organizations granted tax-free status under federal law “may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates,” according to published IRS guidelines.
According to IRS regulations, tax-exempt 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. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position, verbal or written, made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax.”
The guidelines add: “The political campaign activity prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions.”
Churches may invite candidates to speak to the congregation during an election, as long as all candidates are afforded an equal opportunity to speak, according to the guidelines.
A church spokesman denies the pastor crossed the line, saying the pastor never told the church body how to vote.
But Americans United for Separation of Church and State is not the only organization looking to pick a fight with pastors who get too political this year.
In Kansas, monitors from the Mainstream Coalition are being accused of creating a “chilling effect” on the sermons in that state’s churches.
Last month, the Mainstream Coalition announced it would send volunteers into area churches to see whether pastors were abiding by federal laws governing political activity by non-profit institutions.
While the group maintains it is non-partisan and objects across the board to all kinds
of politicking in the pews, the organization’s website shows the Mainstream Coalition has
a strong political agenda of its own. Policy statements posted include the following:
- strong support of Roe v. Wade
- strong support of late-term abortions
- strong support of sex education
- strong support of human cloning
- strong support of hate-crime laws
- strong support of gun control
- strong support for teaching of evolution
- strong opposition to prayer in schools
- strong opposition even to the wearing of religious symbols on government property
Some might question just how mainstream those positions are. Would such a group, for
instance, object to the use of churches to promote politicians who support such an agenda?
Currently, Mainstream has about 100 volunteers monitoring churches mostly in the Kansas City suburbs.
Americans United, meanwhile, filed another complaint this month with the IRS against the Rev. Jerry Falwell over a column endorsing President Bush on his ministries’ website. Falwell, who also writes a column for WND, said the group was waging a “scare-the-churches campaign.”
Falwell told NBC News: “I do believe that pastors, religious leaders, men of God, women of God may in fact voice their personal opinions, as I often do, but only as private citizens.”
In response, Lynn, formerly of the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News: “Falwell is playing a shell game that wouldn’t work in a backwoods carnival. It’s all about electing George Bush and using the church to do it.”
The driving force behind the campaign in Kansas is the debate over same-sex marriage. In May, the Kansas House rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Dozens of pastors joined a statewide effort to register 100,000 new voters and elect sympathetic candidates.
Mainstream’s executive director, Caroline McKnight, said her organization was only trying to make sure that churches follow federal law.
According to IRS guidelines, churches cannot endorse individual candidates, and their pastors cannot use the pulpit or church newsletters to do so. The group has not yet filed any complaints, McKnight said.
But churches can compile voters’ guides – though such guides are supposed to be unbiased. Pastors can preach on issues and, as individuals, endorse candidates.
McKnight said the IRS did not have the resources to monitor churches’ activities, as an agency official confirmed during a seminar last week on political activity by nonprofit groups.
On Wednesday, a group called the Christian Seniors Association sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft and the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division asking to have federal agents sent to the Kansas City area to stop the harassment of churches by Mainstream.