When William Pate went to the rally at Westover Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas, he was expecting a heady mixture of religion and politics. After all, the "Call to Victory" event was advertised as a way to get involved in "the civil war of values being waged in our state and nation."
"Come be equipped and inspired," said the announcement, "by two outstanding pro-life, pro-family Christian leaders to make a difference in 2004, beginning in your neighborhood!"
But Pate, a student at St. Edward's University, was still shocked by what happened at the Feb. 5 event. The rally opened with a prayer by a church elder, but the program quickly went political. The speakers turned out to be top officials of the Texas Republican Party, and an array of two dozen GOP candidates was introduced to the crowd. To top it all off, church collection plates were passed through the pews to collect donations for a political action committee that helps Republican candidates.
That was enough to spur Pate to visit the Americans United for Separation of Church and State website. He wanted to learn whether the church had violated any laws by allowing political fund-raising to occur on its property with its apparent blessing. The donations in those plates would not support any of Westover's religious work, but instead would bolster a political action committee that backs the campaigns of Republican candidates.
Legacy PAC's website might have provided Pate a hint about the tenor the evening would take. According to its Internet advertisement, "Locally and nationally, the right to life and the traditional family are under assault by the vocal and powerful few seeking to radically remake our culture. However, the Truth that life is sacred and that 'family' cannot be arbitrarily defined is increasingly being embraced."
The two "pro-family Christian leaders" the PAC invited to the event at the church were Texas Republican Party Chairman Tina J. Benkiser and Treasurer Susan Howard-Chrane. The PAC warned in its ad that the "outcome of the civil war of values currently being waged in our state and nation depends upon whether ordinary citizens will choose to stand for what is right, right where we stand."
Pate told Church & State that the ad, and the fact that the event was opened with prayer, did not "set off any alarms" because we were, after all, talking about Texas, where God, football, and increasingly politics, appear to go hand-in-hand.
"I went there expecting hard-core conservative," Pate said. "I did not know the event would end up looking illegal. I mean, what struck me as odd, was the actual fund-raising, right there in the pews."
Westover Hills is a congregation aligned with a fundamentalist movement that seeks to restore Christianity to its first-century roots. Its website states that members of the church "want to be obedient to God's word and be Christians like the original Christians we read about in the New Testament."
The church's website also notes that church officials seek to use "the financial and physical resources God has blessed us with carefully. We utilize our building every day of the week with special events and meetings...."
Pate, who attended the "Call to Victory" rally for a class assignment, took copious notes that revealed a highly partisan political fund-raiser steeped in religiosity.
The gathering was opened with an invocation by a Westover Hills church elder, but it included appeals for money from a Legacy PAC official. Indeed, Pate reported that the PAC official took to the church's pulpit between the first and second keynote addresses to proclaim that $5,000 was needed to "elect good Republican candidates to office," after which the church collection plates were disseminated throughout the pews.
"I think the PAC is capitalizing on the political atmosphere," Pate said. "The PAC is looking to the churches to help elect Republicans in this political season. It is disingenuous for PAC officials to suggest they just rented the church for space. As far as I can tell, the PAC holds these events only in churches. There are schools and other facilities in the area that could be used."
Following the invocation, 24 candidates, all Republicans, were introduced to the audience of about 150. Then the Texas GOP officials launched into speeches laced with partisan political attacks and religious musings.
According to Republican Chairman Benkiser, America was founded on biblical principles. The nation started lurching toward the left, she said, sometime in the 1960s when liberals many of whom were "atheists and agnostics or had humanistic worldviews" gained control of the nation's institutions of higher education.
During those bleak times, Benkiser contended, Christians began to turn away from politics, which ultimately led to federal courts packed with "activist judges who did whatever the heck they wanted." As a result, prayer was barred from public schools, followed by the "systematic removal of everything Christian." A decrease in SAT scores and an increase in the teen pregnancy rate soon followed, she insisted.
Benkiser said it was not until the election of President Bill Clinton that Christians began to return in earnest to politics.
According to Pate, Benkiser closed her remarks by assuring the audience that "you are here tonight by divine appointment."
"God," she continued, "has entrusted me as a watchman, but as Christians has entrusted you as gatekeepers to be stewards of every vote.... All the recent Republican success is credit to God's leadership, not to any man or woman. We must seek his advice on everything."
Texas GOP Treasurer Howard-Chrane followed Benkiser. According to Pate, Howard-Chrane took the stage and declared, "God is preparing us for the battle to come."
She criticized Republicans for bickering over the policies of President George W. Bush and demanded that it stop.
"You know what you are going to do when we go to the voting booth later this year?" she said. "You are going to consider the alternative and vote for George Bush!"
Howard-Chrane spent several minutes deriding the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry calling him "Lurch Kerry" and blasting the Democratic Party for allegedly "tearing down the moral fiber of the country" and waging class warfare.
She then quoted Psalm 125:3: "For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, so that the righteous might not stretch out their hands to do wrong." Howard-Chrane said she liked the passage because "it's the word of God telling me that the Republicans are going to win." America, she said, is the land of the righteous and cannot be ruled by "wicked" Democrats who advocate "killing babies in the womb."
As Election Day 2004 approaches, it is possible that events similar to the one at Westover Hills Church of Christ will unfold in other houses of worship nationwide. Some may be subtle or as blatantly political as the one in Austin. Americans United, as well as other public policy groups, have become increasingly alarmed at the close relationships some churches and religious leaders are forming with political campaigns.
Most of the nation's churches are organized as 501(c)(3) non-profits, allowing them exemptions from federal taxation. The Internal Revenue Service Code requires, however, that non-profit groups refrain from electioneering or face losing tax-exemption. The IRS regulation has been in place since the 1950s and is intended, in part, to ensure that donations to non-profit groups are not turned away from charitable purposes. Tax law allows houses of worship to address political issues, but does not allow them to endorse a political party or candidate.
In 1996, Americans United launched a nationwide effort called Project Fair Play to ensure that houses of worship know the parameters of federal tax law. Sometimes Americans United has had to ask the IRS to investigate religious groups that flout their tax status.
After looking into Pate's account of the partisan rally and fund-raiser at Westover Hills, Americans United decided to notify the IRS. On March 12, AU filed a formal complaint with the federal tax agency, asserting that the church seems to have engaged in illegal partisan politicking by working with Legacy PAC to conduct a campaign event.
"I am shocked that politicians and clergy would convert a church sanctuary into a smoke-filled back room," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director. "Houses of worship are supposed to focus on winning souls, not winning elections."
In its complaint, AU maintained that Westover church officials had violated the federal tax code, which bars intervention by tax-exempt groups in political campaigns.
"The church not only allowed its facilities to be used by Republican candidates seeking office, but also permitted a political action committee to fund-raise for Republican candidates in the church sanctuary," AU's complaint states.
Representatives of the Legacy PAC and Westover Hills Church denied, in press accounts of AU's complaint, that the event was sponsored by the church or that federal tax law was flouted.
"The goal of Americans United is to purge people of faith from politics and government and that's clearly what they're trying to do is intimidate religious people and dissuade them from participating in politics," Ted Royer, a spokesman for the Texas Republican Party, told the Associated Press.
But Texas GOP leader Benkiser had every reason to know the requirements of federal law. Benkiser is a member of Second Baptist Church in Houston, a congregation that underwent a three-year IRS audit after Americans United reported political activities going on in church facilities there.
Since founding Project Fair Play, AU has asked the IRS to investigate 45 houses of worship for endorsing candidates from both major political parties as well as third-parties.
Most recently, AU asked the tax agency to investigate a Boston church whose pastor endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Kerry from the pulpit. Several newspapers and wire services reported that Kerry attended worship services at Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church April 4 and that the Rev. Gregory G. Groover issued an endorsement of him during the service.
The Boston Globe and other newspapers noted that Groover even employed a variant of the "bring it on" line Kerry frequently uses in campaign speeches, telling the congregation, "We say, God, bring him on, the next president of the United States, the honorable John F. Kerry."
According to the Associated Press, Groover, speaking of Kerry, also said, "We're thankful that there's going to be a revolution in this country. A new day has occurred, a new movement."
The bulk of AU's Project Fair Play centers on providing houses of worship with material detailing tax law and the proper types of activities that can be engaged in without imperiling their tax exemptions (see "Project Fair Play," February 2004 Church & State). AU's brochure, "Religion, Partisan Politics and Tax Exemption: What Federal Law Requires and Why," is disseminated widely to religious leaders and is available on the AU website at the "Church Electioneering" link under "Our Issues." So is another document headlined "Churches & Politics: A Guide for Religious Leaders."
For several years now, a number of influential Religious Right leaders have lobbied Congress to amend the tax code to allow houses of worship to actively engage in electioneering without endangering their tax exemptions. (See "Pulpit Politics," February 2004 Church & State.) Some of those religious leaders include Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, all of whom have made it known that the 2004 general elections will be of utmost importance to the Religious Right's agenda.
Fueling the Religious Right's extraordinary interest in this year's presidential election is the gay marriage issue. Dobson, among other Religious Right leaders, wouldn't let Bush off the hook until the president publicly supported an amendment to the Constitution to bar gay marriage in America. At the National Association of Evangelicals annual convention in March, Dobson, according to The Denver Post, warned attendees that losing the battle over gay marriage would signal the end of the cultural war.
James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe church in Duluth, Ga., and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The Dallas Morning News that the president's support of an anti-gay marriage amendment would likely propel large numbers of evangelicals to the polls in November.
"The president sent a clear signal to his base: I'm going to give you folks every reason to get out to that voting booth," Merritt said in describing the importance of Bush's support.
In what many political pundits currently believe will be a tightly contested presidential race, AU's Lynn said he expects houses of worship to come under even more pressure to get actively involved in politicking.
"Religious Right leaders are pushing harder than ever to drag churches into the political arena," Lynn said. "We must get the word out to houses of worship nationwide that they should play by the same rules as other non-profits and refrain from endorsing politicians or using their resources to advance a politician's campaign. We are always reluctant to take the step of asking the IRS to investigate a church, but in some cases, the apparent disregard of federal law is so flagrant and egregious that there is no other choice."
Americans United's work already seems to be having a beneficial effect.
Another Legacy PAC function was scheduled at Westover Hills, but it was cancelled.
Legacy PAC Treasurer Bill Crocker told the Austin American-Statesman that church elders have asked him to find another location.
"I don't blame them," Crocker said. "They don't need a lot of grief."