Church-State Separatists Accuse Evangelical Pastors of Violating Tax-Exempt Status

"The unfounded accusation made by this organization and others is nothing more than an attack on our First Amendment right of free speech”
( [email protected] ) Jul 27, 2004 09:00 PM EDT

Protestant Christianity accounts for more than fifty percent of the voter base in America, making it a powerful target for all political camps. Therefore, in this election-year, republicans and democrats have rallied the support of Christian America and split the evangelical and liberal groups in Christianity nearly completely on party lines, raising questions of the separation of church and state within the borders.

Last week, the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State(AUSCS), a group whose high-ranking officials adhere to mainline denominations, sent a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service about two ultra-conservative pastors on the bases that they “endorsed” the republican party.

The first complaint was issued on July 15th about Virginia pastor Jerry Falwell while the second complaint was sent on July 20th about the Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd. If the IRS agrees to the complaint, both the churches would lose its tax-exempt status.

Barry Lynn, the executive director of AUSCS, pointed to Falwell’s July 1 email newsletter to his congregants in making the charge. Falwell’s newsletter said that for “conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush.”

Lynn then accused the Floyd, pastor of the 14,000 First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., for supposedly violating his tax-exempt status by delivering a sermon on the values of the two candidates.

"Pastor Floyd's presentation seemed more like a Bush campaign commercial than a church service," said Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director, in a statement. "His sermon was clearly intervention in the campaign on behalf of Bush."

During his sermon, Rev. Floyd called the November presidential election as “one of the most critical elections in U.S. history. ... Rarely have we seen two candidates so diametrically opposed in their convictions."

Floyd contrasted the candidates’ stance on gay “marriage.”

“One candidate believes marriage is a God-ordained institution between one man and one woman and has proposed a constitutional amendment protecting marriage." Floyd said as a picture of George Bush showed up behind him.

"The other candidate was one of only 14 U.S. senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996," Floyd added, as a photo of Kerry appeared.

Similar contrasts were made on other issues such as abortion and other issues.

The IRS released in a statement following the complaint that "Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3)," the part of the tax code that governs churches and other not-for-profit organizations.

Both Falwell and Floyd this week denied the charges, calling the complaint an effort to scare “conservative people of faith” from voting for principles this election year.

The charges are "nothing more than a threat to pastors and our churches" to "intimidate" them "into silence,” Floyd’s church wrote in an immediate statement.

"The unfounded accusation made by this organization and others is nothing more than an attack on our First Amendment right of free speech," the statement read.

"Pastors can preach on biblical, moral, and social issues, such as traditional marriage and abortion, urge the congregation to register to vote, and then to vote, overview the positions of the candidates, and may personally endorse candidates," the church statement read. "Churches may distribute non-partisan voter guides, register voters, provide transportation to the polls, hold candidate forums, and introduce visiting candidates."

Falwell agreed, urging pastors not to be intimidated by AUSCS.

"[P]astors, continue to speak the truth from your pulpits," Falwell wrote. "Don't let any inaccurate letters scare you away from urging your congregations to political action."

Falwell then accused the AUSCS for being biased against conservative churches, noting that John Edwards – Kerry’s running mate – often spoke at predominantly black churches where the pastor endorsed the democratic ticket.

"About this time each election year, AU sends what I term a 'fright letter' to thousands of conservative evangelical pastors, telling them -- quite incorrectly -- that any use of voter guides, political discourse or other such activity could result in a loss of tax-exempt status for their churches," Falwell wrote in a letter posted on his website.

"However, no such letter is sent to African-American churches or to liberal mainline denominational churches. Traditionally, the Democratic candidates speak in many African-American churches during their presidential campaigns,” he continued.

Floyd’s church statement reminded pastors and Christians that “This war is between what is right and what is wrong according to God's Holy Word ... the Bible."

“We still believe that when you go to the polls this November, and any date in the future, you should not vote for or against any political party or politician," the statement read. "Just vote God ... His values, His ways, His Word,” they wrote.