WASHINGTON — AIDED by a vigorous network of evangelical churches, the Christian right has emerged as one of the most powerful pressure groups in American politics. But if the Internal Revenue Service has its way, churches that join the political ballgame will have to start paying the price of admission.
Earlier this month, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of a New York church that took out newspaper advertisements opposing Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential election. The ads violated tax codes that prohibit churches and other tax-exempt religious groups from endorsing or opposing candidates.
Calling the sanction ''an obnoxious form of censorship,'' lawyers representing broadcaster Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, a 1.5 million-member advocacy group, filed suit challenging the tax law in federal court on Monday. Laws restricting church involvement in politics, they say, violate the First Amendment right to free speech.
Suit's seismic shift
If Mr. Robertson's suit succeeds, it could produce a seismic shift in America's political landscape. As Americans express a renewed interest in religion and ''traditional'' values, some churches are growing more influential and politically active on issues such as school prayer, abortion, and the death penalty. If freed to publicly evaluate political candidates, pulpits could become powerful political forums.
Going back to the American Revolution, churches have long played a central role in shaping public opinion, taking active part in the 1960s civil rights movement, campaigning against United States involvement in Central America, and the current debate over state-funded abortions. But Robertson's lawsuit could dramatically expand that role.
''The stakes are high,'' says John Green, a University of Akron political science professor. ''If the Christian Coalition wins this case, it opens up whole new political resources for them. In the long run, other churches can do the same thing, but it would most directly benefit Pat Robertson.''
The current case centers around the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y. During the 1992 presidential race, the church bought full-page ads in national newspapers. The ads began: ''Christian Beware'' and criticized Clinton's positions on abortion, homosexual rights, and condom distribution in public schools. After warning voters not to ''follow another man in his sin,'' the ad concludes with the question: ''How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?''
To some observers, the ad reveals the extent to which evangelical churches like the church at Pierce Creek have already been politicized. ''Pat Robertson ... clearly wants to turn churches into gears in a political machine,'' Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said in a statement. ''When pastors turn their churches into smoke-filled rooms,'' he adds, ''the IRS has a right to blow the whistle.''
Yet Pierce Creek Pastor Dan Little, who presides over a congregation of ''a couple hundred'' near Binghamton, N.Y., says that his church's action wasn't political, but moral.
''We wanted to issue a warning to the Christian community to let them know where Clinton stood on these very important moral issues,'' he says. ''This was not a political matter, but a matter of moral judgement.''
Jay Sekulow, attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice (the Christian Coalition's legal action wing) argues that by naming Clinton, the Pierce Creek congregation was exercising its constitutional right of free speech. ''I don't think the government should be in the business of censoring churches, and that's what they're doing.''
Mr. Sekulow argues that pastors have long endorsed political candidates from the pulpit, noting the traditional support black churches offer Democrats. The IRS sanction, he says, is a political move by a Democratic administration trying to silence conservative evangelical churches.
Yet the Coalition's critics argue that nobody is trying to muzzle these churches. If a congregation wants to speak out on specific political issues, they can form a political action committee.
Churches, and other tax-exempt groups such as the Christian Coalition, have the right to speak out on partisan political issues if they choose, says Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United, but with the understanding that once they do, their tax-exempt status is in danger.