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Medill Belief and Public Life


Church watchdog groups are fighting—both for and against—a federal law prohibiting churches from weighing in on political candidates
By Andrew Baltazar, August 24, 2007
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A Christian minister begins a Web-based sermon with a disclaimer, warning the 2.4 million subscribers to his online prayer site that what he is about to say could be circulated in the media. Then the minister, Bill Keller of the conservative, non-profit Bill Keller Ministries, delivers the punch: "If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan."

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Bill Keller discusses, the online prayer ministry of his St. Petersburg, Fla.-based religious organization, Bill Keller Ministries

According to Barry Lynn of Americans United, churches are violating the tax codes earlier this election season than in previous ones.

Sure enough in May, Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, immediately requested that the Internal Revenue Service investigate Bill Keller Ministries and its prayer Web site,

The reason? Alleged violations of a federal law prohibiting such tax-exempt institutions as religious organizations and charities from endorsing or opposing those running for office.

The fight for the White House is already underway. But another election-season battle, this one waged by religious interest groups, is picking up steam. Some have tuned their ears to candidate acclamations from the pulpit, ready to strike when a preacher even speaks the name of a presidential runner. Others advocate an unfettered fusion of religion and politics.

And at least one group has done both.

This conflict has been escalating during each election season because of the Christian right, politically biased watchdog and religious interest groups, and the Internet, which often facilitates church investigations.

The IRS relies on watchdog organizations to ensure that nonprofit groups, such as churches and charities, obey the tax laws. Rather than monitoring churches itself, the IRS selects churches to investigate based on complaints it receives mainly from watchdogs, IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis said.

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Nancy Mathis of the IRS defines the rules for 501(c)(3) groups, which prohibits them from weighing in on political candidates.

Although many groups keeping eagle eyes on the church-candidate relationship strive to uphold the tax laws, some have political agendas that occasionally divert them from their primary mission, said John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

"These watchdog groups have made a point of paying attention to activities that they believe violate the tax laws," he said. "Partly this is because they firmly believe in the tax laws. But also, some of the motivations for this watchdog activity is clearly disagreement with what religious conservatives believe in."

The complaints from religious conservative oversight groups about liberal churches seems to be a more recent phenomenon and a reaction to the watchdog activities of groups like Americans United, which they see as promoting a liberal agenda, Green added.

Just after AU reported Bill Keller Ministries to the IRS, Keller fired back, accusing Lynn, who also is a minister of the United Church of Christ, of being a hypocrite. In June, the UCC invited presidential candidate and UCC member Barack Obama, the Democratic junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, to speak at its General Synod. He was the only candidate at the convention.

"If Barry Lynn was consistent in how he operates his watchdog group, he would have immediately gone down and filed a letter with the IRS asking them to revoke the tax exempt status of the United Church of Christ," Keller said. "If you want to talk about overt politicization of a religious group, then how can you have a leading candidate for president come speak at your convention?"

The UCC invited Obama as a non-candidate to speak about faith and politics, but critics have argued the church broke tax codes because Obama sporadically mentioned his bid for president in his 40-minute long address.

"I think he would have been wise not to do that," Lynn said. "But you can't control every speech or every word that comes out of the mouth of someone you invite as a non-candidate. I'm sorry he did it, but we wouldn't report any group under these facts."

Even though AU reported Keller's ministry to the IRS, Keller said he agrees with the tax code. He just wishes watchdog groups would be a little more considerate to churches by notifying them about their supposed violation ahead of filing reports with federal authorities.

"That's not what Americans United does," Keller said.

"They send these grandiose letters to the IRS and follow up with a press release to all the major news outlets." In fact the story was published by several online news venues and newspapers, including the Washington Post.

For its part, AU claims to be non-partisan. But consider Religious Freedom Coalition, an advocacy organization and watchdog group that openly goes after liberal churches.

William J. Murray, the Washington D.C.-based group's chairman, said he sends spies into liberal churches to try to seek out violations of the tax code, believing other groups primarily pursue churches that lean to the political right.

"Religious Freedom Coalition exists because of Americans United," Murray said. "We go out and we target churches, principally liberal churches, and we try to catch them in some way, for instance with some kind of political literature on their table or voting guides that we think we can hand over to the IRS."

Even so, AU spokesman Rob Boston insisted on American United's value of nonpartisanship, saying the organization investigates both liberal and conservative churches equally. "If there are other groups out there that want to [monitor churches] in a more partisan manner, they have that right, but I think it's misguided," he said.

Many of the groups critical of AU completely disagree with the 501(c)(3) rules that cover such actions, said Lynn of Americans United. "They're trying to turn churches into cogs and political machines themselves. They have no interest in preserving the pulpit for moral and religious issues."

Green said AU might claim to be non-partisan, but its watchdog work increased as a direct result of similar activism by the Christian Right. While the number of watchdogs reporting churches has increased in recent years, Green said, the clash has been ongoing for nearly three decades.

"Watchdog activities rose markedly in the 1980s after the rise of the Moral Majority and persisted into the 1990s and into the present because of the continuing activity of Christian-right organizations," Green said. Those organizations included Christian Coalition, American Family Association and the Family Research Council.

According to Den Dulk, a professor in religion and public life at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., watchdog organizations have been able to use the rise of the Christian Right and its promotion of religious freedom to justify their own mobilization. Still, he said, those groups have ensured that churches stay within the spirit of the law.

People for the American Way pioneered the movement in 1981 when televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson entered the political arena. PFAW founder Norman Lear vowed to fight legislation that allowed religion into the public sphere. The group, for example, rallied to defeat a constitutional amendment that would have introduced prayer into public schools.

Similarly, AU, founded in 1947 to block proposals meant to extend government aid to religious schools and keep prayer out of public schools, reestablished itself in response to the growing presence of the religious right in the 1980s.

In 2004, political experts say, the Christian Right rose again for the first time in nearly a decade. That year, Republicans launched a grassroots effort that mobilized priests and pastors to support Bush and get their congregants to the polls on Election Day.

That election also turned the Internet into a key battleground, fueling watchdog activity and a rise in IRS investigations. According to Boston of Americans United, the Internet has made monitoring easier by allowing churchgoers to submit what they view as hard evidence.

"We may in some cases receive actual recordings of the sermons, or the sermon may be posted if not as a video clip, as a Word file online. And that's gold," Boston said, referring to Project Fair Play, an AU Web site and effort to stop church electioneering. The site enables churchgoers to submit evidence of tax code violations by religious groups.

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Barry Lynn discusses Project Fair Play, Americans United's initiative to stop religious leaders from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

In 2004, Religious Freedom Coalition started a site called Rat Out a Church to target only liberal churches and submit instances of tax law violation.

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William J. Murray discusses Rat Out a Church, a Web site of the Washington D.C.-based Religious Freedom Coaltion. The site invites visitors to spy on liberal churches and report instances of church electioneering.

"Rat Out a Church's sole purpose is to shut [churches] up so they can't practice their free speech rights," said Murray of Religious Freedom Coalition. "That's what Rat Out a Church does, and it's shameful. I mean, what we do is absolutely, 100 percent shameful."

But the battle has extended past Web submission forms. Leaders of the various interest groups also have been going at it in the blogosphere.

In June, Lynn submitted an entry to his blog on the AU Web site, explaining why Obama's appearance at the UCC Synod was legal. He wrote: "Church leaders, including [UCC's] president, reiterated that the invitation was issued well before Obama launched his presidential campaign and that he was invited to speak on a specific topic of interest, not to trumpet his candidacy."

James Hutchins, moderator of the watchdog Web site UCC Truths, replied to Lynn' entry. "Truly unbelievable Barry," Hutchins wrote. "If Obama was speaking as a non-candidate then his reference to campaign pledges if elected to office clearly violates IRS standard for separation."

Lynn's rebuttal: "Why not take action you feel is justified instead of continuing to comment - accurately or inaccurately - on what I have done or not done? If you file a complaint with the IRS and if the agency rules that what the UCC has done is illegal, I'll be the first person to admit that I made a mistake."

According to Kevin Den Dulk, the battle among opposed watchdog groups and religious advocacy organizations served an essential role for the country.

"It's messy and there's a lot of conflict," he said. "But maintaining the tax codes is only going to work well if there are a range of groups on all sides of these issues."

The IRS alone lacks the manpower to monitor the thousands of religious organizations around the country, said Mathis, spokeswoman for the IRS.

Furthermore, Den Dulk said, the IRS also avoids sending agents into churches to steer clear of various political and constitutional issues. Fortunately, a wide range of watchdog groups now exists, he added. "You wouldn't have seen that in the 1970s."

He advises, however, that when churchgoers witness violations to the tax code at a house of worship, they should carefully pick a watchdog organization with which to file a complaint.

Churchgoers should research other groups before reporting to them, especially ones that are not historically known for gathering reports on electioneering, he said. Information sent to them could end up in a black hole because they often lack structure and experience. The same could happen if you complain directly to the IRS because they handle a myriad of laws.

Laura Olson, associate professor in political science at Clemson University, said churches desiring to participate freely in the political sphere could simply forfeit their tax-exempt status. But politics must be a secondary aim for religious groups, especially for the many churches that struggle financially, she said. For them, tax exemption is indispensable.

"The first thing churches have to worry about is tending to the flock, serving the religious needs of the flock with worship and religious education," she said.

In order to fill that need, churches require adequate financial resources, she said. Without tax exemption, many of the smaller congregations across the country would not be able to stay afloat.

But Pastor Mark Holick of the Spirit One Christian Center in Wichita, Kan., puts his 150-member church at risk because he believes that political candidates represent various moral issues, so endorsing or opposing them from the pulpit upholds God's word and moral law.

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Pastor Mark Holick on the social values of his church, Spirit One Chrisitian Center in Wichita, Kan., which the IRS began investigating in April for allegedly criticizing of candidates running for local office.

"Although the liberal agenda says they believe in freedom of speech and tolerance, they are actually the most intolerant of all," Holick argued. "Any view that disagrees with them, they will try to silence by whatever means they have, and in this case, they are using the IRS."

In April, the IRS began investigating Holick's church for a message on the church marquee that criticized a state official during a campaign. There were other alleged violations, but the key was this marquee reading: "Sebelius accepted $300,000.00 from abortionist Tiller, price of 1000 babies."

"When we have a politician who supports abortion," he said, "then we will let people know that he supports the taking of innocent life."

For Murray, as long as one side is silenced, the other side should be too. The goal, he said, is simply to create an even playing field.

Back in 2004, Murray thought that AU was mailing letters to only conservative churches, warning them that if they so much as mentioned a political candidate, the IRS might revoke their tax exemption. So Murray did the same thing - but only to churches with liberal leanings.

"We mailed into Ohio," he said. "We mailed into Pennsylvania. We mailed into states that we saw were key battleground states because we knew that somebody else was going to mail only to liberal churches in those battleground states. It's just fair is fair."

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According to Murray, Rat Out a Church's mission of seeking out tax violations only in liberal churches is appalling. But his organization continues to run the project because he believes other watchdog groups are only pursuing conservative churches.

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