Two federal agencies have dismissed separate complaints related to messages by Rev. Jerry Falwell that were regarded by some as illegal political endorsements.
The Internal Revenue Service closed its books on a complaint about a seminary chapel speech in which Falwell personally endorsed President Bush’s re-election.
Separately, the Federal Election Commission dismissed a complaint related to statements Falwell, a WND columnist, made in a “Falwell Confidential” e-mail sent during the 2004 presidential election season.
Falwell’s chapel-service message was about spiritual maturity, and he emphasized any views expressed were his own. But a complaint was filed against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, based on an account in the Fort Worth Star Telegram of the Aug. 24, 2004, meeting.
Falwell and the seminary are represented by Liberty Counsel President and General Counsel Mathew D. Staver.
Staver pointed out the seminary’s chapel, scheduled three days a week, is a religious meeting in which outside speakers regularly are invited to address the students and faculty.
The messages are personal to the speaker, he emphasized, and Falwell told reporters after his address that his statements supporting Bush for president were his personal views.
Liberty Counsel filed a response to the IRS on Dec. 17, 2004, and the agency now has closed its file on the matter.
Staver said that while he was pleased the complaint was dismissed, it is “disconcerting” that it was filed in the first place.
“The IRS should not be eavesdropping and pursuing complaints based upon one citizen forwarding a newspaper account,” he said.
Staver said that while no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for engaging in political activity, most Americans believe the IRS regulation implemented in 1954 regarding political candidates should be repealed.
“Pastors and churches, as much as any other private citizen, have the right to express their opinions regarding political candidates,” he said.
Meanwhile, the FEC unanimously dismissed a complaint filed against Jerry Falwell Ministries and Liberty Alliance by a 6-0 vote.
On July 1, 2004, Falwell sent a “Falwell Confidential” e-mail urging people of faith to exercise their vote during the presidential election.
In the email, he stated, “For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable.”
The e-mail also urged supporters to contribute to the Campaign for Working Families Political Action Committee.
Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that Jerry Falwell Ministries and Liberty Alliance, a lobbying organization, violated election laws by circulating an e-mail that expressly advocated the election of a federal candidate and contained a solicitation for contributions to a political action committee.
Liberty Counsel argued that those groups are covered by the press exemption.
Falwell is the founder of Liberty Broadcasting Network, WTLU television station, the Liberty Channel cable network and two radio stations, WRVL FM and WWMC FM.
His “Old Time Gospel Hour” has been broadcast since 1956 and is the longest running, uninterrupted religious program in the nation.
The response also argued that that Jerry Falwell Ministries and Liberty Alliance meet the “qualified nonprofit corporation” status because they are supported by private, rather than corporate, contributions. In addition, the response argued that the cost of disseminating the e-mail was minimal.
Staver argued Falwell does not “lose his right to personal expression each election cycle.”
“As a member of the media, the media outlets through which he communicates enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, just as much as the Washington Times,” Staver said.
Falwell commented: “Religious nonprofit groups are not orphans to the First Amendment. I have been expressing my views on politics for five decades and am pleased with the FEC’s ruling.”