Church-Based Politicking

Unwanted, Unethical -- And Patently Illegal

Partisan politicking has no place in America's houses of worship. Most clergy and church-goers rightly consider support for or opposition to candidates to be unwanted, unwarranted and unethical.

It also happens to be illegal. Federal law is very clear on this matter: Tax-exempt groups organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code may not intervene in partisan campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates.

In light of this, a May 12 decision by a conservative, three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upholding federal tax law in this area is welcome.

Religious Right groups, especially TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, have been itching to get rid of IRS requirements barring church-based electioneering. Robertson sees federal tax law as a massive roadblock in the way of his crusade to draft churches into his partisan political machine.

The court's decision is a crushing blow to Robertson's efforts. (It is especially nice that the verdict was rendered by Senior Judge James Buckley and two other appointees of President Ronald Reagan, hardly the "liberal" judiciary that Robertson rails against.)

This decision came about because of an outrageous abuse of the law: In late October of 1992, a fundamentalist church near Binghamton, N.Y., ran a full-page ad in USA Today advising people that voting for candidate Bill Clinton would be a sin. Citing Clinton's alleged views on abortion, homosexuality and condom distribution in public schools, the church blasted Clinton and had the temerity to ask for tax-deductible contributions to run more ads like it.

Americans United filed a complaint about the church's flagrant violation of the law, and the IRS subsequently revoked the church's tax-exempt status. Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice sued the IRS on the congregation's behalf, claiming that the revocation violated the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom and other legal protections.

The federal appeals court found all of the ACLJ's claims without merit, labeling one argument "more creative than persuasive." The IRS, the appeals court declared, acted appropriately in dealing with a church that had brazenly flouted the law of the land.

When the decision was announced, Robertson's attorneys struggled to minimize its impact. But there's no way this ruling can be read as anything but a staggering defeat for Robertson, the ACLJ and the Religious Right at large. It slams the door on partisan politicking based in churches and will prove to be a serious deterrent to the Religious Right's insidious efforts.

Just as importantly, the Branch Ministries v. Rossotti ruling preserves the integrity of religion by keeping houses of worship focused on what ought to be their primary goals: spreading their views and ministering to people, not electing or defeating candidates for public office.

Most religious leaders have no desire to drag electioneering into their sanctuaries. Those who believe differently can now see the danger of buying into Robertson's misguided political crusade. The ruling is bound to give them pause.

For that reason, all Americans should be grateful for the wisdom displayed by the appellate court.