By Julia Scott
[The battle for millions of Christian voters is bogged down in a quagmire of soft money, campaign finance reform, IRS regulations and double-edged fears for the First Amendment.]
It was eight years of Bill Clinton that convinced Pastor Rick Scarborough of the need for invigorated Christian activism.
“[H]is radical position on abortion, even vetoing [legislation banning] partial-birth abortion twice, illustrates the moral divide between those of us who believe strongly in Biblical precepts and those who don’t,” said Scarborough, a Houston-based Baptist evangelist. “Bill Clinton was elected twice because 75 percent of born-again evangelicals in the country didn’t go to the polls.”
Despite that low turnout, church communities are an important potential voter base in the 2004 elections.
A recent Harris poll found that 92 percent of Americans “believe in God,” and an O’Leary Report/Zogby International Values Poll taken in January concluded that almost 60 percent of likely voters are prone to support a president who is religious.
To tap into the potential clout of religious voters, Scarborough founded Vision America, a nonprofit voter education and mobilization organization with “over 1,000 pastors and churches affiliated,” according to the group’s website.
Faith-based political activism is an American tradition that includes pacifist Quakers, Jesuit social justice activists, the Christian Coalition’s conservative evangelicals, and Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, who recently pledged to deny communion to Catholic voters who support abortion rights.
But some religious activists say that section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code — which oversees tax-exempt nonprofit charities, and prohibits candidate or legislative endorsements — violates First Amendment rights.
Their legislative solution — H.R. 235, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act — was introduced by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R.-NC), and would prevent churches from losing their tax exemption “because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”
The bill does not create a similar exemption for secular 501(c)(3) public charities.
Opponents of H.R. 235 say it would skirt tax laws and the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act’s ban on soft money.
Although churches are periodically investigated for prohibited political activity, in recent years only one — the Binghampton, N.Y.-based Church at Pierce Creek — has had its tax-exempt status revoked.
The church had placed a full-page advertisement in USA Today during the 1992 presidential campaign.
The ad attacked candidate Bill Clinton’s stance on abortion, claimed that he supported “policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws,” and solicited tax-deductible contributions to the church.
The fate of the Pierce Creek church underpins a letter circulated each election year by AUSCS, reminding church leaders to refrain from partisan political activity, and from distributing voter guides produced by the Christian Coalition, which lost its tax-exempt status in 1999 due to politicized activities.
The letter notes that churches may organize nonpartisan voter registrations, host campaign events to which all candidates in a race are invited, and invite a candidate to address congregations without soliciting votes.
It also affirms that “churches have, and have always had, the right to speak on the hot social, political topics of the day,” said AUSCS spokesman Jeremy Leaming. “All we’re asking is that they, like all other nonprofits, not use their resources to endorse candidates — become, in essence, political machines.”
In a statement on its website, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way agrees that “there is no limit” on political comments by religious leaders, and that they can “speak through sermons, internal communications or even as commentators in the news media, as long as they refrain from endorsing a candidate on behalf of the house of faith.”
For Father Frank Pavone, director of the Catholic anti-abortion group Priests for Life, federal regulations are unclear.
“I can give a talk today and think I was in the guidelines and find out six months later somebody is launching a complaint, not so much because of what I said, but because of the timing and the implications,” he said. “The ambiguity is what’s unfair.”
Beyond the prohibition on endorsements, Pavone said, the IRS can only take into account the “facts and circumstances” of each case; thus, preaching that “abortion is a sin” in an election year when abortion is an issue could theoretically be a breach.
According to Leaming, this reading of the law is extreme: “The IRS is focused on endorsements of candidates or other blatant politicking on behalf of a candidate,” he said. “Preaching about issues … is not likely to jeopardize a nonprofit’s tax-exempt status.”
Regardless, said Pavone, many priests hesitate to speak due to “attorneys who have an overly restrictive interpretation of the law.”
In response, Priests for Life is planning to distribute their own letter to Catholic parishes this year, discussing ways to preach an anti-abortion message without fear of legal consequences.
Scarborough, whose Vision America organization is a 501(c)(3), considers church activism a free speech issue.
“I don’t believe there should be any restriction on a pastor who stands before a congregation and feels led to address an issue,” he said. “If it’s partisan, so be it. He ought to be free to speak.”
According to Colby May, senior counsel and director of the American Center for Law and Justice, the IRS has “been put in the position of being the thought and the speech police. That, we think, is not only anti-free speech, but really outside what ought to be the normal activity for the tax collecting arm of the government.”
The ACLJ is a major proponent of H.R. 235, and an earlier version, H.R. 2357 — the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act — that failed on a vote of 178-239 in October 2002.
Soft Money Ban
Tanya Clay, deputy director of public policy for People for the American Way, said that the free speech argument is “extremely misleading.”
Her concern is that the bill’s passage would amount to an “end run” around both IRS regulations and the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act’s ban on using soft money to influence elections.
Because 501(c)(3) nonprofits are public charities, not political organizations, they are not covered by the soft money ban, said Marianne Viray, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, an election finance reform group.
“They don’t file with the Federal Election Commission,” she said.
Critics say this would enable H.R. 235 to open a soft-money loophole, permitting tax-exempt churches with radio and TV programs to broadcast candidate endorsements.
“There is tremendous campaign value to being able to put on an endorsement sermon, especially on television, the Sunday before an election,” said Roger Limoges, deputy director for public policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance.
May asserts that there would be no change in campaign finance laws, “[i]t just says whatever may be said from the pulpit is not something the IRS will evaluate in determining whether there’s been a political intervention under the tax code.”
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means in January 2003, and is supported by Christian leaders such as Dr. James Dobson and Beverly LaHaye, and groups such as Priests for Life, according to the website www.hr235.org/.
“Conscience for Society”
Not all religious communities are so supportive.
The American Jewish Congress, and the United Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches are all identified in a February 2004 AUSCS newsletter as opponents of the bill.
“The Adventist Church … believes that churches that endorse political candidates create a nexus between the political sphere and spiritual sphere that isn’t healthy for either side,” said church spokesman Kermit Netteburg. “We do believe that 501(c)(3) [organizations] ought to be involved in the ongoing dialog of public issues. That’s very different from endorsing specific political candidates.”
A February Interfaith Alliance/Zogby International Poll revealed that 76 percent of Americans disapprove of religious leaders endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
In 2002, a Gallup/Interfaith Alliance poll found that 77 percent of clergy polled believe that religious leaders should not endorse candidates, but that a majority of clergy and their constituents supported clergy taking an active role in voter turnout.
A statement on the People for the American Way website asserts that involvement with politics would “taint” churches’ moral leadership.
“They need to continue to be a voice of conscience for society, not a tool for the parties and politicians,” the site reads.
Vision America’s Scarborough, an activist minister by any measure, supports H.R. 235, but said there are limits to the role of religion in politics.
“Christians are not going to flock to churches that are political machines,” he said. “Any pastor that does that is a fool.”
Additional reporting by Josh Wilson.