WASHINGTON — AS conservative Christian churches become more politically active, some are walking an increasingly fine line with a powerful federal agency.
Last year, for the first time, the US Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status of a church for its foray into politics. The alleged sin: The church bought a full-page ad in USA Today in 1992 against then-presidential-candidate Bill Clinton.
Now the same religious watchdog group that reported that first church to the IRS is going after another one - Second Baptist Church of Houston, one of the largest conservative Christian churches in the country. The Washington-based group Americans United For Separation of Church and State charges a group in the Houston church with openly partisan political activity, in violation of the IRS's rules governing tax-exempt organizations.
Second Baptist Church acknowledges that an instance of partisan politicking took place recently in a church meeting room, but says it was the unauthorized action of one church member.
Critics of Americans United, meanwhile, are crying bias. African-American pastors, who are typically liberal, have been openly endorsing political candidates from the pulpit for decades, virtually without sanction, they say.
Growing challenges to churches' political activities highlight the legal gray area in which churches operate. They have also set off debate among legal activists. Some charge the IRS code is unconstitutional on grounds it squelches freedom of religious speech. Others say this is about separation of church and state and they want to see laws governing all tax-exempt groups under IRS Code 501(c)(3) enforced. Since 1954, the code has forbidden partisan politicking by such groups.
The debate has caught the attention of two members of the US House of Representatives. Reps. Phil Crane of Illinois, a white conservative Republican, and Charles Rangel of New York, a black liberal Democrat, have introduced a bill that would allow churches to spend some of their revenues to support political candidates. Though the bill is not likely to be acted on, it reflects the depth of feeling in some circles about the issue.
In Houston, officials at the Second Baptist Church say the IRS has not contacted them. But Americans United's campaign is having an impact. "There is no doubt that this will have a chilling effect on the legitimate political activities of churches," says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission.
Churches do have a legal right to play a nonpartisan role in politics, and many spell out dos and don'ts in memos to their members. Churches may, for example, distribute voter guides put out by activist groups like the Christian Coalition, which compare candidates' positions on a range of issues. Churches are also free to take positions on public-policy issues, such as abortion, and to instruct members in how to become more involved politically by voting, becoming delegates to political conventions, and running for office.
Many white Protestant pastors, in fact, used to disavow politics, not wanting to sully their work with the "things of this world." Now, as a sense of moral crisis in the nation deepens, many feel it is their duty to get involved. In the black community, the nexus of religion and politics has long been present, as witnessed by the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
On Nov. 3, 1992, the Church at Pierce Creek, in Vestal, N.Y., took its politics one step too far, according to the IRS. In its USA Today ad, headlined "Christian Beware," the church warned against voting for Mr. Clinton. Last year, the IRS revoked its tax-exempt status. In response, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a legal-defense group founded by TV evangelist Pat Robertson, has sued the IRS to recover the church's exemption. The case could go to the Supreme Court.
Now, the ACLJ is battling Americans United's charges against the Second Baptist Church in Houston. Exhibit A is a document, found on a table at the church, urging parishioners to attend a political precinct convention and vote for a particular slate of delegates.
Doug Elliott, the church member who put out the flyer, has acknowledged his error. "He apologized to me about it," says Judy Craig, director of the church's ministry networks.
But Americans United says that since it announced March 19 that it was reporting Second Baptist Church to the IRS, other evidence of partisan politics has come to light. One church member, Karen Kay Kristopher, filed a sworn affidavit to the Texas Ethics Commission alleging a church group explicitly backed one of her opponents in her bid to become Justice of the Peace. Mrs. Craig disputes the substance of the affidavit.
ACLJ's Jay Sekulow says Americans United has an underlying agenda. It "is trying to intimidate churches whose views it disagrees with," he says.
Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director, counters that his group looks for overt partisan politicking across the political spectrum. In 1988, for example, Americans United complained to the IRS when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then a Democratic candidate for president, solicited donations during church services.
The IRS, for its part, has shown reluctance over the years to go so far as to withdraw a church's tax-exempt status, but it does make inquiries with churches when enough compelling evidence is presented. "We get a fairly steady stream of complaints about tax-exempt organizations," says Marcus Owens, director of the IRS's technical division on exempt organizations.
Mr. Owens would not confirm or deny whether the IRS has received complaints on the Houston church, citing privacy regulations. In general, though, he said it's often hard to prove that a breach of regulations has taken place. In the case of the Church at Pierce Creek, he said, the case could be proved because the placing of the newspaper ad involved a transfer of money.