Martin Smith likes to keep up with the political news of the day. That's why he signed on with the George W. Bush re-election campaign to receive regular updates via e-mail.
Most of the information Smith has received so far has been pedestrian, but what came into his computer's mailbox June 1 was anything but run of the mill.
The e-mail's message subject line read, "Lead Your Congregation for President Bush." In the text, Luke Bernstein, coalitions coordinator for the Bush-Cheney '04 headquarters in Pennsylvania, asked for leads in finding houses of worship willing to help Bush get re-elected.
"The Bush-Cheney '04 national headquarters in Virginia has asked us to identify 1600 'Friendly Congregations' in Pennsylvania where voters friendly to President Bush might gather on a regular basis," Bernstein wrote. "In each of these friendly congregations, we would like to identify a volunteer coordinator who can help distribute general information to other supporters."
The message went on to say that the Bush campaign would like a church-based volunteer's help in "distributing general information/updates or voter registration materials in a place accessible to the congregation."
Smith – the name is a pseudonym to protect his confidentiality – thought the message was curious, especially since he lives in Virginia, not Pennsylvania. More troubling was its implication that houses of worship could join the Bush re-election efforts. Smith knew that wasn't right
"The e-mail assumed that the president and his party had a kind of natural right to lead and direct congregations, either because congregations should fall in line with those in authority, or because all religious people would naturally be Republicans," Smith said. "Both of these are deeply contrary to the U.S. tradition of independent and self-directed congregations."
Continued Smith, "This upsets me not only because it shows no understanding of why our government does not allow establishment of religion, but because it shows no understanding of the religious genius of this country, of people hungry for the spirit, not for orthodoxy and conformity."
Disturbed by the message, Smith, an Americans United supporter, promptly hit the "forward" button and sent the e-mail off to AU.
"Thought you all would want to see this," he wrote.
Smith wasn't the only one alarmed by the Bush-Cheney overture. A few other AU members got the same e-mail message and forwarded it to the national office.
Americans United was quick to jump into action. After confirming that the Bush church-politicking effort was indeed under way and was not an e-mail hoax, AU issued a press statement warning that participating congregations would jeopardize their tax exemption.
"This is the most shocking example of politicizing churches I've ever seen," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The last thing this country needs is a church-based political machine. The Bush campaign should abandon this plan immediately."
Added Lynn, "By enrolling churches in an election scheme, the Bush campaign is endangering those churches' tax exemptions. That's bad enough, but the introduction of partisan politics into the pews will also divide congregations and entangle politics and religion in very unhealthy ways."
The national news media took an immediate interest in the story. The next day, articles about the Bush church-based politicking scheme appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today, and an Associated Press dispatch circulated the matter nationwide. National Public Radio's "Marketplace" also interviewed Lynn about the effort.
The Times piece, which ran on page one, quoted Lynn saying, "I never thought anyone could attempt to so completely meld a political party with a network of religious organizations."
The lengthy article quoted tax experts who said that churches should be wary of the Bush campaign overture.
"If the church is doing it, it is a legal problem for the church," said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. "In the past, the IRS has sought to revoke and has succeeded in revoking the tax-exempt status of churches for political activity."
Potter was referring to a 1995 action of the IRS, which pulled the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek, a New York congregation that ran an ad in USA Today just before the 1992 election telling Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton. AU filed the complaint that led to the IRS move. TV preacher Pat Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, later sued in an effort to get the exemption back, but federal courts upheld the revocation.
Despite the clear and present danger to churches represented by the Bush plan, staffers with the president's re-election effort vowed to plow ahead and even said the church recruitment drive was being duplicated in other states, which they declined to name.
Bush campaign staffers also tried to spin the effort as merely an enlistment tool aimed at individuals.
"The e-mail is targeted to individuals, asking individuals to become involved in the campaign and to share information about the campaign with other people in their faith community," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the campaign.
But that explanation did not wash. The original e-mail message clearly is aimed at entire congregations, not just individuals. It seeks to recruit church members to use church resources and church space for Bush campaign gatherings and literature distribution.
There were signs, however, that the Bush overture might fall flat. Even the arch-conservative Richard D. Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, counseled caution. Land is a Bush supporter, and the SBC regularly lines up with the Republican Party on social issues, but the Baptist official told The Times the new Bush effort might be too much.
"If I were a pastor, I would not be comfortable doing that," Land told the paper. "I would say to my church members, 'We are going to talk about the issues, and we're going to take information from the platforms of the two parties about where they stand on the issues.' I would tell them to vote and to vote their conscience, and the Lord alone is the Lord of the conscience."
At least one Pennsylvania pastor was also wary of the overture. Ronald Fowlkes of Victoria Baptist Church in Springfield, Pa., said he has no desire to introduce partisan politics in his pews.
"We encourage people to get out and vote," Fowlkes told The Times. "If it were focused on one party or person, that would be too much."
The Internal Revenue Service also seemed to take a dim view of the church-politicking overture. Just one week after the matter came to light, the IRS sent a letter to officials with the Republican, Democratic and five smaller parties, reminding them that non-profits may not engage in partisan politicking. (See AU Bulletin, this issue.)
The Bush initiative sparked a different type of fallout on Capitol Hill. There, a small band of powerful congressional Republicans, led by Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), decided to try to quietly rewrite federal tax laws to permit more church-based politicking.
Jones, backed by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), tried to slip a provision into a complex piece of tax legislation that would alter the IRS Code to allow houses of worship to endorse or oppose candidates for public office.
Jones for years has promoted legislation to repeal sections of the IRS Code that prohibit houses of worship from intervening in partisan politics. Unable to get the measure passed as freestanding legislation, Jones apparently decided to turn to other avenues and, backed by Hastert, DeLay and other GOP leaders, append the measure to the tax bill, dubbed the "American Jobs Creation Act of 2004" (H.R. 4520).
But when the final version of the nearly 400-page bill was unveiled, Jones' measure had been changed. The new provision, now called "Safe Harbor for Churches," would not have given houses of worship an unfettered right to intervene in partisan politics, as Jones supports. Instead, churches would receive reduced penalties for their endorsements.
Under the "Safe Harbor" provision, churches could engage in "unintentional" endorsements of candidates up to three times per year, with sanctions falling short of revocation of tax exemption. After the first violation, the church would be required to pay taxes at the corporate rate (currently 35 percent) on one week's gross income. After the second violation, the penalty would rise to a tax on six months' worth of income. After the third, the church would have to pay taxes on an entire year's worth of income. In no case would the church's tax exemption be revoked.
The New York Times reported that the new measure was the work of U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). An aide to the House Ways and Means Committee, which Thomas chairs, told the Associated Press that the provisions were designed to provide the IRS "with a remedy short of revoking tax-exempt status" when houses of worship intervene in politics.
Jones and his allies in the Religious Right found the new language unacceptable. The SBC's Land told The Washington Post that he thought the Thomas measure actually would make things worse.
"This is a case in which the cure is worse than the disease," he said.
Americans United and other groups that support church-state separation also opposed the language and quickly sounded the alarm, alerting the news media and working with a coalition of progressive religious and public policy organizations to oppose the scheme.
Shortly after the Thomas provisions came to public knowledge, congressional opponents announced that they would sponsor an amendment to have the language removed. In a June 9 letter to every member of the House, AU urged that the church-politicking provision be stripped from the bill.
Observed the letter, "The current federal tax law serves our nation's religious communities well, preventing houses of worship from being drawn into partisan politicking, serving the best interests of both religion and government. I urge you to support the Lewis Amendment and oppose final passage of H.R. 4520 unless the church politicking provisions are removed." (Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia legislator who strongly supports church-state separation, had announced plans to offer an amendment erasing the Thomas provisions.)
Realizing that the proposed change had garnered virtually no support, Thomas and his backers soon bowed to the inevitable. On June 14, the Ways and Means Committee met to deliberate changes to the bill and voted unanimously to adopt an amendment put forth by U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) removing the church politicking provisions. (Another House GOP moderate, Amo Houghton of New York, also spoke out against the provisions.)
AU's Lynn said the organization was pleased with the vote.
"Far from creating a 'safe harbor,' this scheme would have set houses of worship adrift on the stormy seas of partisan politics," Lynn observed. "I'm glad the committee decided to torpedo it.
"Americans do not want to see their churches politicized," continued Lynn. "Our houses of worship are already free to speak out on public concerns, and they don't need politicians trying to turn them into cogs in a political machine."
After the vote, however, reports began surfacing that Thomas had deliberately crafted language that he knew would garner no support. Conservative columnist Robert Novak charged in The Washington Post June 28 that Thomas dislikes the Religious Right's presence in the GOP and thus took the "straightforward Jones language" and made sure it was "transmuted into a maze of words that lawyers for conservative organizations say would keep the muzzle on preachers."
An angry Jones seemed to agree. The North Carolina congressman told The Hill newspaper that he proposed adding 28 words to the Thomas provision to fix it, a change he said had support from Hastert and DeLay. But Thomas, Jones charged, refused to make the change.
Religious Right leaders were furious over the outcome. The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition charged that Thomas had deliberately sabotaged the church politicking measure and promised retaliation.
"There will be hell to pay now that the sleeping giant awakes and sees who the enemy is," Sheldon told The Hill. Referring to Thomas, Sheldon added, "If he's not with us, he's against us."
Lynn noted that while defenders of church-state separation won this skirmish, the battle is far from over. Lynn said the fight over the "Safe Harbor" measure proves that Hastert and DeLay are determined to win passages for Jones' church-politicking measure and said AU must remain alert to make certain that the provision is not slipped into other bills.
"Some members of Congress apparently want to open the floodgates for partisan politicking by houses of worship in time for the November elections," Lynn charged. "Their attempt to turn churches into political machines must be blocked."