The early start to the 2008 presidential election has sparked an upswing in partisan political activity by some religious groups.
Americans United recently filed formal complaints over two cases of overt campaign intervention by religious groups.
On May 31, AU asked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate a television preacher in Florida who attacked Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on a ministry Web site.
Americans United asserts that Bill Keller Ministries may have violated federal tax law when its online division, Liveprayer.com, ran articles warning readers that a vote for Romney is a vote for Satan.
“If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for satan!” asserted the ministry in the May 11 “devotional” posted on Liveprayer.com. “This message today is not about Mitt Romney. Romney is an unashamed and proud member of the Mormon cult founded by a murdering polygamist pedophile named Joseph Smith nearly 200 years ago. The teachings of the Mormon cult are doctrinally and theologically in complete opposition to the Absolute Truth of God’s Word…. This message is about the top Christian leaders in our nation who are supporting this cult members [sic] quest to become the next President of the United States.”
Keller goes on to assert, “Having Romney as President is no different than having a Muslim or Scientologist as President. Please, don’t tell me that Mitt Romney is the best option. I’ll stay home and not vote before I will vote for satan, since if you vote for Romney you are voting for satan!”
Four days later, Keller wrote another column attacking Romney and recommending that readers support a third-party candidate.
“As you know I am a huge advocate of Christians taking their stand in all areas of the marketplace, including politics,” Keller wrote. “Most likely our only real option will be choosing a third party candidate who will take a stand to uphold Biblical values. I already know that in this two party system we have, a third party candidate has virtually ZERO chance of ever being elected. However, this election is going to be a test of conscience for Christians.”
Keller, a former businessman who spent more than two years in prison after being convicted of insider trading, runs Bill Keller Ministries in St. Petersburg. He hosts a live, daily television program that airs on a local station at 1 a.m. Contacted by The Washington Post, he was defiant.
“Let them come after me for making a spiritual statement about Mitt Romney,” Keller said. “I would love that. Bring it on.”
Two weeks later, Americans United asked the IRS to investigate the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, R.I. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin attacked GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani in a column published in the diocesan newspaper, Rhode Island Catholic.
Tobin wrote in a May 31 editorial, titled “My R.S.V.P. to Rudy Giuliani,” that he had been invited to a Giuliani fund-raising event. He added that he “would never support a candidate who supports legalized abortion.”
Tobin called Giuliani’s stance on reproductive rights “pathetic,” “confusing” and “hypocritical.” He also compared Giuliani to Pontius Pilate. The bishop wrote that Giuliani’s “weak-kneed” views on reproductive rights prompts him to think of the “sad figure of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels, who personally found no guilt in Jesus, but for fear of the crowd, washed his hands of the whole affair and handed Jesus over to be crucified.”
A spokesman for the bishop insisted that AU’s complaint is without merit.
The IRS continues to signal that it is cracking down on partisan political intervention by non-profit organizations, including religious ones. A June 1 IRS report noted that the agency was asked to investigate 237 cases of alleged intervention by churches and other groups in 2006, an increase of 43 percent over 2004.
Religion News Service reported that many of the 2006 cases remain open. Of the closed cases, 14 involved churches and 26 involved non-church groups. Four churches were issued written warnings, and 10 were cleared.
On June 18, the IRS issued a new revenue ruling codifying some material that had been on the agency’s Web site, giving examples of what constitutes political intervention.
Meanwhile, a complaint filed by Americans United last year involving a Wichita, Kan., church appears to be bearing fruit. The Wichita Eagle reported recently that the IRS is looking into allegations of partisan political activity at Spirit One Christian Center, a fundamentalist church that has long meddled in right-wing politics.
In October of 2006, a Wichita resident noticed blatantly partisan messages on Spirit One’s marquee. One read, “PAUL MORRISON’S EARLY RELEASE OF FELLONS (sic) – REGINALD CARR – MLTPL MURDERS.” It was a reference to Paul Morrison, a candidate for Kansas attorney general and allegations that he was responsible for the inadvertent early release of Carr, who subsequently killed five people.
The other message read, “ABORTIONIST TILLER HAS GIVEN $300,000 TO SEBELIUS. PRICE OF 1000 BABIES.” This reference was to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who was seeking reelection. The message attempted to tie her to George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who provides late-term abortions.
The Wichita resident snapped pictures of the marquee. Americans United sent copies of the photos to the IRS and requested an investigation.
The Eagle reported that Pastor Mark Holick of Spirit One Christian Center has acknowledged that the IRS sent him a letter asking him to respond to questions about political activities at the church.
According to the newspaper, “Those activities include the pastor’s involvement in distributing voter guides and messages on the church’s marquee critical of candidates and their stances on abortion.”
Holick told the Eagle that the IRS has asked him to answer 31 questions. Four of them deal with messages on the church’s marquee. Holick was defiant, telling the newspaper, “It’s a clear violation of the First Amendment, the free exercise of religion, the free exercise of speech.”
AU notes that Holick is wrong. Tax exemption is a benefit, not a right. It comes with conditions, including the ban on partisan political activity. A federal appeals court ruled in 1995 that the IRS regulations in this area do not constitute a violation of free speech.