Church Service Or Campaign Commercial?

Partisan Production At Southern Baptist Congregation In Arkansas Raises Federal Tax Law Questions

To Pastor Ronnie Floyd, the differences between President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry couldn’t be any starker.

“I believe this will be one of the most critical elections in U.S. history,” Floyd told the congregation at his 13,000-member, Southern Baptist mega-church in Springdale, Ark., July 4. “Rarely have we seen two candidates so diametrically opposed in their convictions.”

As a huge, flattering portrait of Bush and a much smaller one of Kerry filled the stage of his First Baptist Church, Floyd went on to say, “One candidate believes that the United States is at war with terrorism. The other believes we’re not at war at all, but in a lawsuit. One candidate believes in the sanctity of an unborn life, signing legislation banning partial-birth abortion and declaring that human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. The other believes in abortion on demand, voting six times in the United States Senate against the ban and insisting there is no such thing as a partial birth.”

Floyd wasn’t done yet.

“One candidate,” he said, “believes that marriage is a God-ordained institution between one man and one woman and has proposed a constitutional amendment protecting marriage. The other was one of only 14 U.S. senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. One candidate publicly and unashamedly confesses faith in Christ and acknowledges that, ‘My faith helps me in the service to people.’ The other encourages private belief and argues that religious beliefs need not influence his decisions as a public official.”

Earlier in the nationally televised sermon, Floyd had several times mentioned Bush favorably. He had also bemoaned the failure of evangelicals to support the president in sufficient numbers in 2000.

“In the presidential election of 2000, a Barna Research poll observed that 57 percent of the evangelical vote went to George W. Bush, while 42 percent went to Al Gore…,” Floyd told the crowd. “According to the polls, conservative Protestant turnout dropped from 19 percent of the vote in 1996 to 15 percent in the year 2000. In the 2000 election, President Bush received among evangelicals about 4 million fewer votes than Bob Dole received in 1996. Amazingly, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by a margin of only 537 votes [in Florida].”

What was Floyd’s message that Sunday morning? It was obvious: Vote for Bush.

Floyd’s pulpit politicking caught the attention of some people in the area, and it didn’t sit well with all of them. Eventually, it reached a reporter with the ArkansasDemocrat-Gazette. At her request, staffers at Americans United viewed the sermon, which had been posted on the church’s website.

To AU, it was an open-and-shut case.

“Pastor Floyd’s presentation seemed more like a Bush campaign commercial than a church service,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “His sermon was clearly intervention in the campaign on behalf of Bush.”

The Internal Revenue Code states that tax-exempt organizations that hold 501(c)(3) status, which includes houses of worship, may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Americans United, which since 1996 has run a special program designed to respond to church-based partisan politicking called “Project Fair Play,” didn’t waste any time reacting to Floyd’s violation of the tax laws.

In a July 20 letter to the Internal Revenue Service, Lynn argued that Floyd’s sermon, which was broadcast nationwide via television, was clearly intended to motivate voters to support Bush by portraying him in a positive light while disparaging Democratic contender Kerry.

Lynn noted that Floyd’s bias in favor of Bush was evident throughout the sermon and was even reflected in the choice of visuals. Floyd also described Bush as a committed Christian who lets his religious beliefs influence his policy decisions while characterizing Kerry as keeping his faith private. He also twisted their stands on key social issues to make Bush more appealing to the evangelical Christian audience.

All of this was done, AU noted, in the context of Floyd’s complaint during the sermon that Bush got fewer votes from evangelical Christians in 2000 than he should have.

“Why would evangelical Christians stay at home and not practice the responsibility of Christian citizenship,” asked Floyd, “when God’s word, which we say we believe, calls us to stand up in our citizenship?”

When word of the AU action became public, an angry Floyd denied endorsing Bush and lashed out at Americans United as a “left wing, ultra-liberal” group.

“The alleged letter of complaint…is nothing more than a threat to pastors and our churches in America, attempting to intimidate the church into silence,” read a church press release.

The release went on to say that Floyd had not endorsed any candidates.

The IRS Code allows non-partisan voter education by non-profit groups, but that activity must be unbiased and not promote one candidate over another. In April, the federal tax agency reminded tax-exempt groups that activities that show favoritism toward certain candidates are not permitted.

“Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition of section 501(c)(3),” stated the IRS in a memorandum to tax-exempt groups.

AU’s report to the IRS caused quite a stir in Arkansas. The Democrat-Gazette ran several stories about the controversy, and local politicians weighed in. U.S. Rep. John Boozman, a Republican who represents the district where First Baptist is located, said the incident proves the need for federal legislation repealing the “no politicking” rule for churches. (Legislation that would do that is stalled in Congress.) Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, himself a minister, also defended Floyd.

“I really believe pastors should have the right to speak about current issues and values without losing their tax-exempt status,” Boozman said.

But other political leaders said an investigation of First Baptist is long overdue. Adella Gray, chairwoman of the Washington County Democratic Party, said over the years she has heard other reports of clergy at First Baptist steering members toward candidates.

“This is not the first I’ve heard of it, I’ll put it that way,” Gray told the Democrat-Gazette. “That’s the reason I think it should be fully investigated.”

In Little Rock, Larry Page, who runs a group called the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, urged pastors to exercise caution in this area – and not just because of the IRS.

“You shouldn’t do anything that would even lend itself to anyone believing you’re supporting a particular candidate or party,” Page said. “We dilute our potential effectiveness in the world if the perception is that we’re partisan.”

Floyd, meanwhile, isn’t backing down. During an Aug. 1 sermon, he insisted that Americans United’s case against him is baseless.

“I have never told anyone who to vote for,” he said, “and I’m not going to start now.” (Floyd is also using his newfound notoriety to promote his recently published anti-gay screed The Gay Agenda: It’s Dividing the Family, the Church and a Nation.)

During his sermon, Floyd attempted to answer AU’s allegations. He said the church used a large photo of Bush and a small one of Kerry because, “We have more pictures of George W. Bush because he’s president.” He denied that his statements contrasting the two candidates were intended to support Bush.

Floyd also attacked Americans United.

On July 31, Lynn and Floyd appeared on Fox News Channel’s “Heartland” to debate the issue. On the air, Floyd tried a new tack, arguing that his sermon was part of a series designed to salute America and the troops fighting in Iraq. He did not explain why it was necessary to endorse Bush and attack Kerry to thank the troops.

Lynn countered that Floyd’s attempts to dodge the issue will not work, telling host John Kasich, “Frankly, if you looked at this whole tape, unless you were a recent immigrant from the planet Mars, you would know exactly what the pastor wanted you to do, and that is to vote for George W. Bush’s re-election in November. There’s no question about it.”

Lynn told Church & State that during this election season, AU will remain alert to other abuses of federal tax law by houses of worship.

“The vast majority of America’s religious leaders obey the law governing political activity,” Lynn said. “The few who don’t should pay the penalty.”