Project Fair Play

Americans United Escalates Campaign To Educate Houses Of Worship About Federal Tax Law And Partisan Politics

Americans United supporters in Texas were looking over financial data related to local elections when something un­usual leaped out: a church in Kerrville had donated $1,500 to the Republican Party.

Documents provided by the Texas Ethics Commission could not have been plainer. Calvary Temple Church donated $1,000 to the Kerr County Republican Party in 2005. It also donated $250 in 2003 and 2004.

The church donations to the GOP raised more than a few eyebrows in Texas and in the Washington, D.C., offices of Americans United. Church donations to political parties are flatly prohibited under the Internal Revenue Code. Accordingly, Americans United on July 19 called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the matter.

“When church-goers place their hard-earned money in the collection plate, they do not expect it to wind up in the hands of politicians,” AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a press statement. “That’s an abuse of the people’s trust and a flouting of the law.”

Contacted by the Kerrville Daily Times, Calvary Temple Church pastor Del Way insisted it was all a misunderstanding. The money, he told the newspaper, was to pay for advertising at a fundraiser golf tournament sponsored by the local Republican Party. The church, Way asserted, never intended to endorse a political party. Way said he would contact GOP officials and ask for the money back.

“I’d be an idiot to directly support a party,” Way said. “I want to be above reproach.”

The Texas incident was the first example of church intervention in politics  that sparked an AU complaint to the IRS this election season. It is unlikely to be the last. As the election approaches, Americans United is gearing up its “Project Fair Play” to ensure that houses of worship and religious non-profit groups do not engage in partisan politicking.

The special program is an educational effort that seeks to help religious leaders understand what the Internal Revenue Code says and debunk claims by the Religious Right that church-based partisanship is permissible. Along those lines, Americans United this year commissioned the preparation of special materials by a Washington, D.C., law firm that specializes in non-profit law. Information about these materials was disseminated to thousands of churches nationwide, and the documents were posted on AU’s Web site (www.au.org).

Prepared by the firm Caplin & Drysdale, the materials explain that federal tax law bars 501(c)(3) groups from intervening in partisan elections, including endorsing or opposing candidates, yet protects clergy discussion of issues. They emphasize the IRS’s recent an­nounce­ment of heightened enforcement of the law, noting the report on compliance the tax agency released earlier this year.

The documents were prepared with input from Marcus Owens, former head of the tax-exempt organizations division of the IRS. Owens, who is now in private practice, is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on the law governing non-profit groups.

AU’s efforts have definitely caught the attention of the Religious Right – so much so that leading groups feel compelled to wildly distort the project. In August, Citizen magazine, the leading political publication of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, scored AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn for sending letters about federal tax law to churches.

“[T]he letter, written by the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), fails to list the specific ways churches and pastors can legally discuss moral issues, register and educate voters and host candidate forums,” asserted the article.

Similar charges have been hurled at AU by other Religious Right groups in the past. The Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council have accused Americans United of political bias, of seeking to gag pastors and of taking away their free-speech rights.

But the charges are not true. In reality, AU’s project is even-handed and about half of the reports filed with the IRS deal with houses of worship that endorsed Democrats.

Nor does AU seek to intimidate any religious leader who speaks on moral issues. AU materials always point out that issue-based advocacy is permitted and that non-partisan voter registration is not a problem. AU’s 2004 letter, for example, stated in part, “The tax code regulation does not, however, mean that religious groups are prohibited from civic activities. Churches, synagogues, mosques and all other non-profit groups can sponsor voter registration drives and non-partisan candidate forums as well as speak on the issues of the day, such as reproductive rights, civil rights for gays, health care and the death penalty. Clergy may endorse candidates as individuals in forums outside the church, or work on behalf of candidates during their personal time. But remember, the IRS regulation does prohibit 501(c)(3) groups from politicking for specific candidates.”

Religious Right activist William Murray was so upset over AU’s Project Fair Play that he started an entire Web site to prod Congress to pass legislation repealing the IRS provision that bans pulpit politicking.

Murray’s site is long on hyperbole but short on facts. He writes, “For years, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), along with the ACLU, has used the IRS as a hammer to wield against Bible believing Christians, particularly in election years…. The ACLU and Barry Lynn have a nationwide network of spies (they are recruited as ‘monitors’) who go into churches for the express purpose of catching pastors saying anything remotely ‘political,’ so they can report the pastors to the IRS.”

Murray, a second-tier Religious Right leader, appears to be making things up as he goes along. The Fair Play effort has nothing to do with the ACLU, and no “spies” are recruited. Information is usually gleaned from media accounts or from church members who disagree with pulpit-based politicking.

In yet another effort to be even-handed, Americans United next month will hold a forum on the issue of church-based politicking in Columbus that includes input from the Religious Right. Jay Sekulow, an attorney for TV preacher Pat Robertson, has agreed to participate in the event, and an invitation has been extended to Pastor Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church as well. Johnson runs the Ohio Restoration Project, which has been accused of fronting for Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Blackwell.

The AU Ohio event is free and open to the public, and members of conservative churches are being encouraged to attend. The purpose of the event, which will also feature comments by Owens, is to spark a dialogue about these issues and also educate the public.

AU’s Lynn noted that with the IRS signaling heightened levels of enforcement this year, it behooves houses of worship to comply with the law and reject misleading advice from Religious Right groups.

“Americans United is not trying to intimidate any church,” Lynn said. “We are merely asking all houses of worship to follow the laws of the land.”