Partisan Preachment

TV Preacher Falwell Pushes Churches Toward Politics, But Americans United Is Fighting Back

Jerry Falwell Jr. may not be as bellicose as his televangelist father, but he still offers up some of the same warped understanding of the First Amend­ment.

After researching what Thomas Jef­fer­son really believed about the separation of church and state, Falwell Jr. said recently, he discovered that the Founding Father did not believe in the “type of separation of church and state that is being promoted today.” Speaking at the “Super Conference 2004” hosted by his father’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, he encouraged churches to aggressively support candidates for political office, despite federal tax law barring electioneering by houses of worship.

“Thomas Road Baptist Church has never had any problem, and we’ve probably been more politically active than most churches,” Falwell Jr. told the gathering of fundamentalist ministers and church officials. “So if you just do what we’re doing, you’ll be OK.”

The Falwells’ conference was held in late September at the TV preacher’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Scheduled only weeks before Election Day, the event drew a few hundred Southern Baptist pastors and other evangelical leaders to hear Falwell Jr. urge them to become more involved in the political fray. He did so despite clear provisions in the IRS Code that prohibit nonprofit groups, including churches, from endorsing candidates for political office or supporting their campaigns.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says the Falwells are on the wrong track, and since the early 1990s, the church-state watchdog group has urged churches and other houses of worship not to betray their religious missions by becoming apparatuses of political parties. During the 2004 election season, Americans United has also urged pastors and religious leaders to reject appeals from Falwell Sr. and other Religious Right leaders to merge churches with political campaigns.

Falwell and other Religious Right figures are waging a relentless crusade to help President George W. Bush and other conservative Republicans achieve victory on Nov. 2. They repeatedly say that only Bush and GOP conservatives will work to outlaw reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and all other types of actions that run counter to the Religious Right’s values.

In a last-ditch effort to push churches into partisan politicking, Falwell Jr. along with Mat Staver, leader of the Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right advocacy group, conducted a “politics and the pulpit” session at the Super Conference. The conference was held over a three-day period, and according to the Associated Press, drew around 2,000 ministers and other church officials.

The majority of the conference workshops and sermons focused on expanding church membership and outreach. The three back-to-back politics-and-the-pulpit sessions, however, drew fewer than 200 attendees. They were added in a transparent attempt to draw publicity following on the heels of a widely publicized complaint filed by Americans United with the Internal Revenue Service over Falwell’s endorsement of Bush’s re-election in a July “Falwell Confidential.” (See “Busted!” September 2004 Church & State.)

Falwell announced the sessions in an August e-mail to supporters under a headline that called “for an uprising of courageous pastors in America.”

“In the progressively more hostile environment we are witnessing against Christians, I believe it is high time that conservative pastors become enlightened as to their rights in the pulpit,” Falwell’s message read. “I am urging pastors and church leaders to prayerfully consider attending this essential conference on the rights of pastors and churches.”

Falwell also started giving what he calls “pastors’ policy briefings” throughout the country to spur more church-based politicking. In a Sept. 24 e-mail to supporters, he said that within the past 10 days he had given such briefings at “15 events in Florida, Ohio, Missouri and Kansas.” He claimed he would continue to sponsor such events “in most of the ‘battleground’ states” in the remaining days before Nov. 2.

On Sept. 22, Falwell appeared at an evangelical church near Kansas City, Mo.

According to a Kansas City Star report on the event at First Family Church in Overland Park, Falwell sounded “Republican themes opposing abortion and same-sex marriage” and urged pastors not to be afraid “to offend people who disagree with them.”

Falwell said “godly men and women” must be elected to public offices in November.

“When righteous people are in authority, the people rejoice,” Falwell proclaimed.

The televangelist’s partisan actions come as Americans United has conducted a high-profile educational project to keep churches and other houses of worship from becoming shills of the major political parties.

In anticipation of Falwell’s church politicking summit, Americans United sent a mailing to Southern Baptist denominational leaders and state conventions, warning that electioneering by churches could result in loss of their tax exemptions.

“Jerry Falwell is trying to mislead America’s religious leaders to meet his own partisan ends,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a press statement announcing the mailing. “Any religious leaders who follow his advice are putting their churches’ tax exemptions at risk.”

The mailing to the Baptist leaders included a two-page letter from Lynn (which was also quietly distributed by AU staffers at Falwell’s Super Conference in Lynchburg) and a memorandum written by former IRS official Milton Cerny detailing the do’s and dont’s of political activities by houses of worship. (Cerny, a respected Washington, D.C., attorney, is a 28-year veteran of the IRS and former chief of the federal tax agency’s Exempt Organizations Rulings area.)

The memo debunks the frequent claims from Falwell and others that the First Amendment bars the IRS from revoking a church’s tax-exempt status for partisan politicking. (To read the full text on AU’s website, go to http://www.au.org/site/Page­Server?pagename=resources_politicsandpulpit.)

“Churches, like all organizations tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, are absolutely prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates for elected public office,” Cerny’s legal analysis states. “As recently as 2000, a federal appellate court squarely rejected a church’s claim that the First Amend­ment’s free exercise of religion clause allowed the church to urge the public to vote against a candidate.”

Americans United’s mailing drew plenty of attention during the Super Con­fer­ence’s church politics sessions. Both Staver and Falwell Jr. derided AU’s Lynn and wildly misrepresented AU’s mailing to the Baptist leaders.

Staver opened the session, which took place in a Liberty University building that houses its newly founded law school, with a prayer seeking the Lord’s presence and guidance. He then asked if any of the pastors had received letters from Americans United warning them against endorsing candidates for public office. Several hands shot up.

“If you haven’t gotten one of those, it is likely you will,” Staver assured the audience of about 80.

And if they do get those letters, Staver declared, they should be ignored because the advice offered is intended to muzzle the pastors’ speech. According to the attorney, Lynn’s only intent is to scare Baptist preachers and other pastors into silence during what Staver and Falwell Jr. repeatedly described as one the most important presidential elections in American history.

Staver, a Liberty University trustee, zeroed in on a particular section in Cerny’s memorandum, which states that “on average about one church a year loses its tax-exempt status.”

“Now that is true, and it’s not true,” Staver assured the audience. “Certainly not true for the political activity. But notice what he said, ‘one church’ – and he puts the word church in quotes – a year loses its tax-exempt status. What he is referring to are people who organize a quote-unquote church, that is really not a church, and it’s a group of people that just want to sit around and smoke marijuana, and they’re going to call that a religion. Or it’s a group of people that just form some fictitious church that’s really not a church until the IRS realizes it is a fictitious church, and they say, ‘well, you can’t be a tax-exempt organization; you’re not a church.’ That’s why [Cerny] put quotes around the word church.”

Staver’s reading of Cerny’s memorandum was off the mark. The memo simply reports the actual history of IRS interaction with houses of worship.

“Rev. Falwell…states that no church has ever really lost its tax-exempt status,” Cerny notes. “That is clearly false. A simple search of IRS announcements for the word ‘church’ reveals that on average about one church a year loses its tax-exempt status.”

Beyond misrepresenting AU’s information regarding the IRS “no politicking” rule, Staver cavalierly charged that a church could not be stripped of its tax-exempt status if its pastor were to endorse a candidate for public office from the pulpit.

“It has never been enforced and personally I don’t think it could be constitutionally enforced,” Staver declared. “The IRS cannot regulate what goes on inside the pulpit. If it were ever enforced, we would fight that vigorously.”

Falwell Jr. told the pastors that if the IRS started punishing pastors for endorsing political campaigns from the pulpit that it would have to crack down on all those university professors who spend entire semesters degrading the Bush re-election efforts.

“I know of a lot where the faculty members spend the whole semester telling students why they should vote for this candidate, why George Bush is terrible,” Falwell Jr. said.

AU’s mailing, and in particular its Cerny memorandum, provides information from court cases and the IRS debunking such rhetoric.

In early spring, the IRS issued a document stating that churches and other nonprofit organizations cannot, without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, engage in “activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate.”

Additionally, the IRS document noted that the “courts have held that it is not unconstitutional for the tax law to impose conditions, such as the political campaign prohibition, upon exemption from federal income tax.”

Also, Cerny’s memorandum noted, in 2000 a federal appellate court upheld the IRS’s decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of a church in New York for buying full-page advertisements in two newspapers opposing Bill Clinton’s candidacy for president.

AU’s material also notes that churches are, and have always been, allowed to speak out on social issues and “to engage in strictly non-partisan election-related activities,” such as conducting even-handed voter-registration drives.

But Lynn said Falwell and other like-minded Religious Right leaders are bent on hiding the truth from pastors in order to further their selfish goal of merging churches with political parties.

“I know that Falwell is a well-known televangelist, but I urge you to be very wary of his advice,” Lynn wrote in his Sept. 22 letter to Baptist church officials and conventions. “The ultimate goal of Falwell and Staver is to influence the course of the election this November, not to protect the integrity and tax-exempt status of churches.”