Churches, Politics And The IRS

Right-Wing Clergy And Their Politician Allies Are Trying To Build Illegal Church-Based Political Machines In Ohio And Other States, But This Year The Federal Tax Agency Seems Ready To Stop Them

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus advises that if someone strikes you, the proper response is not to hit back but to turn the other cheek.

The Rev. Rod Parsley of World Har­vest Church in Columbus, Ohio, has a different view of how to deal with perceived enemies. A recent profile of Parsley in The New Yorker noted that at one Sunday service, the Pentecostal mega-church pastor called for raising up a spiritual army to “track down our adversary, defeat him valiantly, then stand upon his carcass.”

Parsley’s sermons, the article noted with some understatement, “are notable for their graphic detail.”

A casual observer might be tempted to inquire just who Parsley’s adversaries are. Increasingly the answer seems to be anyone who opposes not Parsley’s theology, but his politics. The “spiritual army” Parsley is raising, his critics assert, is more concerned with determining who next occupies the Ohio governor’s mansion than saving souls.

Parsley and his allies have made Ohio ground zero for battles over religion and politics this year. The flamboyant preacher, who sports a spiky crew cut and often sermonizes in a denim jacket, has joined forces with another mega-church pastor, the more staid-looking Russell Johnson, to remake Ohio politics in a decidedly more conservative vein.

The duo’s agenda is rife with familiar Religious Right goals: a ban on legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, taxpayer funding to churches under the guise of “faith-based” initiatives, opposition to public education, strident anti-gay proposals, attacks on evolution and so on.

In his book Silent No More, Parsley observes, “The Constitution says nothing about the separation of church and state…. The words did appear in a constitution once, though; the old constitution of the Soviet Union. I don’t think we want to model ourselves on that disastrous experiment.”

That two ministers would pursue such goals is not unusual. But their tactics have raised plenty of questions: The pair has spent months aggressively promoting Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Blackwell – even using church planes to ferry him to events before conservative religious audiences all over the state. As a result, the two pastors stand accused of violating federal tax law.

Both men run tax-exempt, non-profit organizations, and a coalition of moderate and progressive Ohio clergy believe the duo are using those groups to engineer a Blackwell victory, a clear violation of the Internal Revenue Code. (See “Buckeye Backlash,” March 2006 Church & State.)

Johnson leads Fairfield Christian Church, a 3,500-member non-denominational congregation in Lancaster, Ohio. But a separate entity he created, the Ohio Restoration Project (ORP), serves as his political arm. It has been especially active.

As the The Columbus Dispatch reported recently, “[The] Ohio Restoration Project has held several events across the state since August 2005. All have featured Blackwell in some way, and for that reason some have said that proves the group is merely a front for the candidate.”

Johnson is clear about his goals. As The New Yorker observed, “Johnson created the Ohio Restoration Project with the goal of enlisting two thousand pastors to commit themselves to registering three hundred new voters each by the end of 2006. He planned to raise a million dollars and to hold meetings across the state to find these ‘Patriot Pas­tors.’ On his church’s Web site he wrote, ‘This is a battle between the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell.’” Johnson also told the article’s author, “This is to elect values candidates.”

To Johnson, politics is religious war. According to The Columbus Dispatch, he said, “We believe that we’re at the beaches of spiritual Normandy, and we’re looking at the secular pillboxes up on the hillside, and we’re going to take that hill just like they did at Normandy.”

Ohio isn’t the only state seeing a coordinated effort to mix religion and partisan politics this election year. In Penn­sylvania, a group called Let Free­dom Ring has been accused of organizing churches on behalf of U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Under fire for being partisan, the group agreed to host Santorum’s opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey, in late July.

A similar effort to forge a clergy-based political machine is under way in Texas, where Religious Right activists are rallying around Gov. Rick Perry. Perry, a Republican facing weak poll numbers, is seeking reelection in an unusual four-candidate race.

But the situation in Ohio has been the most closely watched, probably because that state is often seen as a bellwether for presidential elections. Blackwell’s race against U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) is also an important indicator of the strength of the Religious Right. In 2004, far-right forces mobilized in the state, and spurred by a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, helped deliver Ohio to President George W. Bush. This year, religious moderates, fearful of a rising tide of extremism in the state, are fighting back.

The campaign has been ugly. In late July, Gary Lankford, a GOP staffer hired to reach out to social conservatives, sent out an e-mail implying that Strickland and his wife are gay. Lankford, reported the Dispatch, “until recently was listed as state director of the Ohio Restoration Project.”

The state GOP fired Lankford and disavowed his actions, but Religious Right leaders in the state will not stop playing the gay card. Asked about the matter, ORP director Johnson not only refused to disavow Lankford’s tactics but piled on, suggesting that if the claim is untrue, Strickland, a United Methodist minister, should sue.

“It’s slanderous and they’ve got a case. I’m withholding judgment until the facts are in,” Johnson said.

All of this, combined with efforts by the Religious Right to politicize churches in other states, means one thing: Americans United for Separation of Church and State will have its hands full this election season.

As in election years past, Americans United in 2006 is ramping up its “Project Fair Play,” a special effort to educate religious leaders about federal tax law and political activity. (See “Project Fair Play,” page 11.)

2006 presents special challenges. With President Bush’s approval numbers sagging and Re­publican congressional leaders struggling, GOP officials ack­now­ledge they have a problem. Their solution has been to energize the GOP’s base – the Reli­gious Right.

Some of this effort has been relatively high profile and played out in Congress in July when a string of House votes were held on contentious social issues. The idea was to energize Religious Right voters by focusing on issues of concern to them. But the Repub­lican leadership isn’t stopping there. Behind the scenes, more im­portant developments are also unfolding. In some states, GOP officials have been working to access church directories and eg­ging on the activities of organizations like the Ohio Restoration Project and Let Freedom Ring.

National Religious Right groups are eager to play their part. The near-demise of the Christian Coalition has left a void, but that is quickly being filled by other organizations. For many years, the Coa­lition was famous for its slanted “voter guides” that, while claiming to be non-partisan voter education material, nearly always promoted Republican candidates and attacked Democrats.

The Coalition still plans to produce guides this year, but the group, now based in Charleston, S.C., with a rapidly dwindling budget, is unlikely to have much of an impact. Instead, the Family Research Council and the state affiliates of James C. Dobson’s Focus on the Family will probably play a more prominent role.

This month, the Family Research Council and other Rel­i­gi­ous Right groups will host a three-day “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C. The timing is no accident. FRC normally holds its meetings in the spring, but with so much at stake this election year, it moved the event closer to Nov­ember. The gathering is scheduled to feature an array of GOP heavy-hitters, among them former House speaker Newt Ging­rich, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Attorney Gen­eral Al­berto Gonzalez and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback.

But the effort to drag churches into partisan politics faces one huge roadblock: federal tax law. Earlier this year, the IRS announced formation of a new project designed to crack down on politicking by non-profit groups. In Febru­ary, the IRS issued a report on its “Political Activity Compliance Initia­tive,” concluding that nearly three-quarters of 82 groups examined, including churches, “engaged in some level of prohibited political activity.”

Most observers believe the IRS was sending a not-so-subtle signal to non-profit groups that they need to stay out of political races. What happened next should have erased any lingering doubts: IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson de­livered two major speeches (one of them in Ohio) explicitly warning non-profits to expect heightened scrutiny in 2006.

Speaking in Cleveland Feb. 24, Everson made it clear that enforcing federal tax law does not infringe on the First Amendment rights of houses of worship.

“Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy,” he said. “But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, ‘Con­gress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.’”

Everson outlined specific steps the IRS would take this year, including distributing “expanded educational materials” helping non-profits understand the law, starting enforcement efforts “earlier in the election year to ensure consistent and timely referral selections and examinations,” publicizing its efforts in advance and increasing the number of agents “working on political intervention to assure prompt handling of project cases.”

In June, the IRS returned to the topic, this time issuing a press release reminding 501(c) (3) groups that intervention in political campaigns is flatly forbidden.

“The IRS has put procedures into place for the 2006 election season to more quickly address instances of potential pro­hibited activity on the part of charities, churches and other tax-exempt organizations,” noted the re­lease. “The procedures are meant to ensure that public re­ferrals as well as activities the IRS itself uncovers are re­viewed ex­peditiously and treated in a consistent, fair and nonpartisan manner.”

The IRS action has sparked a backlash in Congress. U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) has gone so far as to ask the Government Accountability Of­­fice to investigate the tax agency’s project. Jones has repeatedly pushed legislation to modify or erase the federal tax law ban on church electioneering.

In early August, Jones struck again, circulating a letter among House members insisting that the IRS compliance project “has inadvertently had a chilling impact on free speech.”

Joining Jones in the crusade is U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a California Dem­ocrat. Schiff was apparently persuaded to take up the cause after the IRS an­nounced it would investigate an Episcopal church in California after a guest pastor attacked Bush in a sermon just days before the 2004 election.

So far, the IRS has shown no signs that it intends to buckle under congressional pressure and has issued regular warnings about partisan politicking by non-profits this year right on schedule.

The IRS has issued similar warnings in the past, but some houses of worship have ignored them and intervened in partisan politics anyway. Will this year be different? There are some signs it might. For one thing, the IRS could get more outside help this year. Americans United has sponsored Project Fair Play since 1996 and for several years was the only national organization taking a hard look at church-based partisanship. Recently, interest in the issue has grown, and now other organizations have started to take a closer look at the question. Some are filing their own complaints with the tax agency.

In July, an unidentified group in Missouri wrote to the IRS after the Mis­souri Catholic Conference appeared to be threatening candidates who support stem-cell research.

Officials with the state Catholic conference sent letters to more than 50 candidates who accepted money from Sup­porters of Health Research and Treat­ment, a political action committee that backs using stem cells in medical research. In the letter, the Catholic conference demanded that the candidates return the donations and threatened to list all of the candidates who accepted money from the PAC in Catholic newspapers. Since the church’s opposition to stem-cell research is well known, such an action could be construed as campaign intervention.

In the letter, Lawrence A. Weber, exe­cutive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, told the candidates that the conference would report to Catholic newspapers any office-seekers “who choose to associate themselves with this and similar organizations that promote such unethical practices.”

Marcus S. Owens, a tax lawyer and former IRS official, filed a complaint on behalf of an anonymous client. Owens, who headed up the IRS’s non-profit division during his time with the tax agency, told The New York Times, “It constitutes illegal political interference.”

One incumbent, State Rep. Jim Guest, called the Catholic conference letter a threat and added, “That’s certainly stepping across the line.”

Meanwhile, Pastor Rick Scarborough, a protégé of the Rev. Jerry Falwell who runs a nascent Religious Right group called Vision America, has joined the fray. In a recent e-mail to supporters, Scar­borough asserted that he was surprised to learn that “the leading edge of the culture war had arrived” in Missouri, where voters this November face a ballot referendum on protecting stem-cell research.

Asserting that stem-cell research backers are “engaged in a deception that would have made Adolph [sic] Hitler proud,” Scarborough vowed to focus on “mobilizing Pastors of all denominations to fight a well financed campaign of lies and deceptions.”

While the church-led efforts in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas focus primarily on Republican candidates, the mixing of religion and politics is by no means limited to conservative churches. In recent months, a number of high-profile Dem­ocrats have been talking about the need to reach out to religious voters. Demo­cratic National Committee Chair­man Howard Dean has called on his party to court evangelicals and even went so far as to make a personal appearance on TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.”

In a speech capturing headlines in June, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a rising Democratic star, urged his party not to be afraid to embrace religion. Oba­ma scolded the party for failing to “acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people.” He urged Democrats to compete for the support of “religious Am­ericans and tell them what we stand for.”

Obama expressed support for the principle of church-state separation and did not urge politicking in churches. But his call for a coordinated, party-wide outreach to religious voters, if acted on, is bound to have implications for houses of worship. The temptation to reach religious voters through churches is hard for many candidates to resist.

At the same time, Republicans are eager to duplicate electoral successes they had in 2004 by exploiting same-sex marriage bans that will appear in seven states this year. In 2004, many GOP House and Senate candidates piggy-backed on the issue, hoping that religious conservatives who turned out for the ballot question would also pull a lever for Republicans.

Complicating matters is that Parsley and Johnson clearly see their Ohio experiment as a model for the nation. Whether they succeed in electing Blackwell or not, they are likely to try exporting it to other states.

Parsley has already launched two Religious Right groups of his own, Re­formation Ohio and the Center for Moral Clarity (CMC), and is eager for a tryout on the national stage. In July, he sent an e-mail to CMC supporters bragging about a recent visit to Washington, D.C. While there, Parsley attended a pro-Israel rally with other Religious Right leaders and was invited to attend a White House ceremony during which Bush vetoed a bill authorizing tax funding for stem-cell research. Parsley concluded the report by thanking his supporters for giving him “the opportunity to speak truth to power in Washington, D.C.!”

The complicated dynamic means Am­ericans United and its allies will be busy urging religious leaders to safeguard the integrity of their pulpits by rejecting calls to engage in partisan political activity.

“There are appropriate ways for religion and politics to interact, but church-based partisan politicking and pulpit endorsements are not among them,” said AU’s Lynn. “It’s time for religious leaders and office-seekers to respect the law and not allow our houses of worship to be­come cogs in someone’s political machine.”