Miami Church's IRS Tax Exemption Questioned after Kerry's Visit

( [email protected] ) Oct 14, 2004 08:33 PM EDT

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State have sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service, asking it to investigate whether if a Miami church violated its tax-exempt status by having pastors campaign for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry during a Sunday worship service.

After the Rev. Gaston Smith introduced Kerry as “President Kerry” to members at a Sunday worship service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, two pastors, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton gave personal endorsements for Kerry. Jackson also led the congregation in a chant about voting for Kerry.

"This appears to have been a clear case of a church hosting a partisan political rally," wrote Barry Lynn of AUSCS to the IRS. "I believe the obvious aim of this event was to endorse Kerry's candidacy and spur congregants to vote for him. As such, the church has run afoul of federal tax law."

Lynn said churches should invite candidates and their opponents and refrain from endorsing any.

"Federal tax law is clear on this matter," Lynn said. "Houses of worship may not endorse candidates for public office, and they certainly may not host huge partisan rallies. This was way over the top."

Members of The Interfaith Alliance, which represents 150,000 members drawn from more than 75 faith traditions including Christianity, agree.

"Our concern is to protect the sanctity of houses of worship and the integrity of religion," said the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the group. "We're not calling for houses of worship to shut down political discussion and education on the issues, but we are calling on all candidates and religious leaders to stop engaging in partisan politics at their houses of worship.

"There is no place for partisan political campaigning and organizing in a religious congregation," Gaddy said. "Houses of worship and their leaders will serve our nation best by staying true to their role as places of unifying prayer for people of all political persuasions and as sources of compassionate ministry for all people in search of a more meaningful spirituality."