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Churches and partisan politics: a bad mix.

THE NOVEMBER ELECTIONS are fast approaching and, as usual, questions about the proper role of religion in politics are being raised.

Religion continues to hold great sway over politics in the United States. Many Humanists would say it has too much power. In time, religion's grip on the political system may loosen somewhat and the country may begin to look more like many European nations, where religion no longer plays a prominent political role.

Until that day, it's worth noting that federal tax law does place some limits on political activity by houses of worship. Provisions in the Internal Revenue Code bar all tax-exempt organizations that hold the 501(c)(3) designation from endorsing or opposing candidates or intervening in elections.

Despite these rules, every year some pastors choose to jump head first into partisan politics.

These abuses occur on all points of the political spectrum. Eager to play to its base, Republican Party officials have been hitting up churches for membership directories and tacitly egging on the creation of church-based political machines in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and other states. At the same time, Democratic candidates in several states have been appearing in liberal-leaning churches seeking support and votes.

Will this type of activity be tolerated? There are signs that the Internal Revenue Service is growing weary of blatant church-based politicking and this year may see a serious crackdown on those who skirt the law.

IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson recently delivered two major speeches on this topic, warning of heightened enforcement of the Internal Revenue Code. According to a lengthy February 22 report the IRS issued on the matter, nothing less than the integrity of the nonprofit community is at stake.

"If left unaddressed, the potential for charities, including churches, being used as arms of political campaigns and parties will erode the public's confidence in these institutions," reads the report's executive summary.

A warning shot has already come sailing across the bow. As part of its new "Political Activity Compliance Initiative," the IRS examined the activities of 132 nonprofits during the 2004 election cycle. "Fewer than half" were described as churches. The IRS found evidence of significant abuses in many cases. Fifty-eight groups were determined to have violated the law and in three cases, revocation of tax exemption was recommended. The remaining fifty-five received written warnings. (Twenty-eight cases are still under review and the remaining twenty-two were closed without sanctions. For more information go to the IRS Web site, www. irs.gov, and click on the "Charities & Non-Profits" tab.)

A crackdown on church-based politicking could be a serious blow to the religious right. In Ohio, a group that calls itself the Ohio Restoration Project has been arranging appearances by Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, in conservative churches all over the state. The effort helped Blackwell win the GOP nod in the primary election and now his fundamentalist backers hope it will carry him into the governor's mansion as well.

A similar effort is under way in Pennsylvania, where a group called the Pennsylvania Pastors Network is organizing ostensibly around the issue of same-sex marriage. In reality, the effort appears to be a plan to organize right-wing churches on behalf of embattled Senator Rick Santorum.

It's important to understand that the IRS crackdown is in no way aimed at conservative churches. All houses of worship, no matter what their political perspective, need to pay attention to what the IRS is saying. Earlier this year, the IRS announced it was investigating a California church where a guest minister attacked President George W. Bush in a sermon just days before the 2004 election. This is clearly a bipartisan thrust.

A recent Washington Post article discussed efforts by candidates to mobilize black churches. This type of activity is often described as a tradition in the African-American church. If so, it is a tradition that needs to end. Candidate appearances in churches are legal under certain conditions. Outright shilling for votes in the pulpit never is.

Simple common sense tells clergy to be careful. Many politicians and would-be politicians view churches as tempting places to seek votes, and it's to be expected that those seeking public office would make overtures to religious leaders. It's up to pastors to make sure that interaction complies with federal tax law. If there is a violation, it is the church, not the candidate's campaign office, that will be penalized.

It's also important to note that the IRS interprets the "no-politicking" rule quite broadly. As the IRS website states:
 Political campaign intervention includes any and
 all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates
 for public office. The prohibition extends
 beyond candidate endorsements. Contributions to
 political campaign funds or public statements of
 position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf
 of an organization in favor of or in opposition to
 any candidate for public office clearly violate the
 prohibition on political campaign intervention.
 Distributing statements prepared by others that
 favor or oppose any candidate for public office will
 also violate the prohibition. Allowing a candidate
 to use an organization's assets or facilities will also
 violate the prohibition if other candidates are not
 given an equivalent opportunity.


Religious right groups often claim that this prohibition is an attempt to gag the faith community in the United States. As usual, they are resorting to scare tactics. Nothing in the Internal Revenue Code means houses of worship, Humanist groups, or other 501 (c) (3) organizations aren't allowed to address political issues. Nonprofit groups may engage in issue advocacy and even a certain amount of lobbying under the IRS rules. A pastor may speak out for legal abortion or against it; he or she may blast same-sex marriage or praise it. Religious leaders cross a forbidden line when they use church resources to intervene in a partisan election or distribute a candidate's campaign literature. They face no penalty for speaking out on an issue.

The reason for this distinction is simple: nonprofit groups enjoy the benefit of being exempted from taxation. This benefit comes with conditions. Such organizations are meant to serve some public good, not to become cogs in a political machine. If houses of worship are permitted to engage in blatant politicking on behalf of candidates, politicians will quickly set up sham nonprofits, run their operations through them, and skirt U.S. election law, which is already fairly loophole ridden.

Occasionally proposals surface in Congress to repeal the language in the Internal Revenue Code and open the door to church-based politicking. U.S. Representative Walter B. Jones (Republican-North Carolina) has backed legislation like this for years. While the bill, which in the great tradition of congressional doublespeak is called "The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act" (H.R. 235), is not moving right now, it is worth keeping an eye on. The Republican Party seems determined to use "culture war" issues to mobilize their base, and weird things are happening in the nation's capital. Bills that seemed obscure are suddenly being resurrected for debates and votes.

Remember, anything can happen. It is, after all, an election year.

Rob Boston is assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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Title Annotation:CHURCH AND STATE
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Words:1199
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