Checkmating Church Politicking

Americans United Battles A Bishop And Religious Right Pawns Over Pulpit Partisanship

Three weeks before the election, Roman Catholic Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J, published a column in the diocesan newspaper and on its Web site criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

In the essay, titled “A Politician’s Promise: No Right to Life! No Freedom!,” Serratelli went so far as to compare Obama to Herod Antipas, the New Testament ruler who is notorious for ordering the beheading of John the Baptist.

Referring to Obama as “the present democratic candidate for President,” Serratelli attacked the Illinois senator’s support for reproductive choice and assailed Obama’s promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, a measure safeguarding abortion rights.

“If this politician fulfills his promise,” the bishop observed in his Oct. 9 column, “not only will many of our freedoms as Americans be taken from us, but the innocent and vulnerable will spill their blood.”

Serratelli concluded, “Today we live in a democracy. We choose our leaders who make our laws. Every vote counts. Today, either we choose to respect and protect life, especially the life of the child in the womb of the mother or we sanction the loss of our most basic freedoms. At this point, we are still free to choose!”

Tax-exempt religious organizations are free to take stands on issues, but they are not, under federal tax law, allowed to intervene in elections by tying them to specific candidates and their campaigns. Convinced that Serratelli had run afoul of that standard, Americans United reported the diocese to the Internal Revenue Service on Oct. 22.

“Bishop Serratelli is essentially telling congregants that they have to vote against Obama or they’ll lose basic freedoms,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “He went right up to the line and then leaped over it. The IRS should act.”

Serratelli reacted swiftly. He insisted he did not tell anyone to vote against Obama and posted a statement on the diocese’s Web site complaining about the local press coverage.

Behind the scenes, even more was afoot. On Oct. 23, AU’s Lynn received an overnight letter from Kenneth F. Mullaney Jr., an attorney for the diocese, demanding that Americans United remove a press release about Serratelli’s actions.

“Your website posting is flat out wrong and grossly misleading,” wrote Mullaney. “As a result, I call upon you (indeed, I demand of you) to immediately withdraw the posting which this Diocese regards as defamatory of Bishop Serratelli.”

AU did not remove the press release. In fact, the organization commented on the matter in more detail on its “Wall of Separation” blog. In addition, Lynn appeared on Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor” Oct. 28 to discuss Serratelli’s actions.

The next day, another letter from Mullaney arrived. Blasting Lynn for his “blatant hypocrisy” on O’Reilly’s show, Mullaney upped the ante by directly threatening litigation.

“[Y]ou continue to malign and defame Bishop Serratelli,” wrote Mullaney. “This will not be tolerated. If you continue, litigation will be commenced without further notice.”

At this point, Americans United decided to respond. The organization enlisted the services of Laura R. Handman, a Washington attorney with the firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who specializes in defamation law. Handman wrote to Mullaney and explained that Serratelli has no case.

“In fully and accurately setting forth the basis for his interpretation that the October 9 column urged a vote against the ‘present democratic candidate’ and, as such, was an ‘apparent violation’ of federal tax law warranting investigation, the Rev. Lynn’s letter and press release are classic examples of opinion, fully protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution…,” wrote Handman.

Handman added, “It is indeed ironic that you would emphasize your client’s ‘absolute right and the obligation to speak about the great moral issues which he feels threaten the very fabric of our society’ while seeking to censor and punish my clients for speaking about issues they equally fervently believe in – the separation of church and state secured by our Constitution.”

Handman told Mullaney that if he proceeds with litigation, AU would seek Rule 11 sanctions – essentially a penalty for filing a frivolous lawsuit.

The Paterson incident, while dramatic, was only one example of the injudicious mixing of pulpit and politics combated by Americans United this election season. In fact, efforts by the Religious Right and some members of the Catholic hierarchy to politicize America’s houses of worship reached new heights this year, keeping AU very busy.

For the first time, pastors were the targets of an organized campaign urging them to violate federal tax law by openly endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

The campaign, dubbed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” by its organizers at the Alliance Defense Fund, captured a lot of media attention, but it wasn’t the only scheme the Religious Right had up its sleeve. Biased “voter guides” appeared in some churches, and some religious leaders tried to push favored candidates in other ways.

Americans United was quick to respond to these efforts. Acting swiftly after “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” AU reported eight of the most egregious violators to the IRS. (See “Pulpit Plot Thickens,” November 2008 Church & State.)

AU also filed an IRS complaint against Rock Christian Fellowship in Espanola, N.M., for posting signs favorable to GOP candidates on the side of its church. The congregation displayed two large photos on its building. One depicted an aborted fetus and had underneath it three last names of Democratic candidates: Obama, Udall and Lujan. (Tom Udall was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Ben Ray Lujan was a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.)

The other photo was of a healthy baby and had below it three last names of Republican candidates: McCain, Pearce and East. (Steve Pearce was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Dan East was a candidate for the U.S. House.)

The photo of the healthy baby was headlined “Life.” Below the display were the words “YOU WILL DECIDE.”

(AU’s work on church politicking was strictly nonpartisan. Days after the New Mexico complaint, AU reported the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for hosting an event featuring Michelle Obama. During her speech, Mrs. Obama promoted her husband’s candidacy.)

But AU didn’t simply react to events, it also took proactive steps. Months before the election, Americans United revamped its Project Fair Play Web site, adding new content and updating information. The site (www.projectfairplay.org) has become a leading resource for activists looking to combat unlawful church politicking.

In October, Americans United announced a mass mailing of informational letters to more than 100,000 houses of worship nationwide. Copies went to churches, synagogues and mosques from various denominations and traditions. In addition, Americans United members were urged to copy the letter and send it to clergy in their own communities.

The letter explained that activities such as non-partisan voter registration and issue advocacy are permitted but reminded clergy that they may not use church resources to endorse or oppose candidates.

Did the Religious Right attempt to politicize churches succeed? Polls taken before the election showed huge majorities wary of pulpit politicking. Exit polls after the election showed that white evangelical Protestants stayed with McCain. But if Religious Right leaders had hopes of using church electioneering to move beyond their base, they were disappointed. It just didn’t happen.

One prominent evangelical publication, Charisma magazine, paid AU a back-handed compliment by noting that the organization’s efforts to block pulpit politicking have been successful.

An article designed to spur pastors to be more political observed, “Several watchdog groups will continue to conduct all-out campaigns in an attempt to silence the church. The problem is, they come on very strong and can be intimidating. One group in particular, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), launched a successful national campaign in 2004 to monitor churches, in an effort to keep them from distributing voter guides. Many churches simply bowed out of the process because they didn’t understand their rights.”

This year, some far-right churches may not have “bowed out” of the process; rather, they found their efforts unsuccessful. Exit polls showed more than 60 percent of voters identified the economy as their top issue, with the war in Iraq being the second. Social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage were far down on the list.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said he is confident that most pastors and congregants reject pulpit politicking. Lynn noted that prior to the election, LifeWay Research, a firm affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, released a poll indicating that 95 percent of pastors strongly disagree that their church has provided any endorsements.

A noisy minority of religious leaders, however, is working in concert with the Religious Right to defy federal tax law. Lynn said this brazen effort cannot go unanswered, and that’s why AU sponsors Project Fair Play.

“Church-based electioneering drives wedges into congregations, violates federal tax law and distracts from the true mission of the religious community,” Lynn said in an Oct. 21 press statement. “It’s a bad deal all around.”