Church Politicking In Calif. Recall Sparks AU Complaint To IRS

A Los Angeles church hosted a political rally for Gov. Gray Davis during Sept. 14 services, sparking an official complaint to the Internal Revenue Service from Americans United.

Several newspapers reported Sept. 15 that former President Bill Clinton spoke from the pulpit of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clinton exhorted the congregation to vote against the effort to recall Davis, telling attendees, "Don't do this. Don't do this. Don't shred your Constitution. Don't shred the fabric of government. Don't tell people Californians are so impatient that they give somebody an employment contract and then tear it up in the middle because times are tough. This is the right thing to do, to beat this recall."

Davis himself also addressed the congregants, remarking, "This recall threatens the very fabric of democracy. It is not good for you, it is not good for California. I ask that you defeat it."

In addition, the church's pastor, the Rev. Cecil Murray, told the congregation that Davis is "our vital warrior" and "we are his posse." According to The Washington Post, Murray "urged his flock to renounce the recall." The paper also noted that "in attendance were dozens of elected Democrats."

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the church-run event clearly crossed the line into partisan politicking.

"I believe any fair-minded person would conclude that this event, coming just three weeks before the scheduled recall election, was designed to influence voters to retain Davis in office," Lynn wrote in a letter to Steven T. Miller, director of the IRS's Exempt Organidzations Division. "As such, it would seem to be a clear violation of the church's tax-exempt status."

Lynn urged the IRS to conduct an investigation and "apply any penalties you deem appropriate."

Federal tax law bars churches and other organizations with a 501(c)3 tax-exempt status to engage in political activities on behalf of (or against) any candidate for public office.

Americans United works to educate houses of worship about the dangers of engaging in partisan politicking through its Project Fair Play. In cases of clear violations of the law, Americans United asks the IRS to investigate. One congregation, the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., lost its tax-exempt status for inappropriate intervention in a partisan campaign.