Does US law mute voices of churches?
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A church in Vestal, N.Y., for example, lost its tax-exempt status when it published an anti-Clinton ad in a national newspaper. In 1993, the Rev. Jerry Falwell had to pay $50,000 in back taxes for diverting charitable contributions into support for congressional candidates. A Baptist church in Tampa, Fla, recently received a letter of inquiry from the IRS about a planned activity in support of a Democratic candidate.Skip to next paragraph
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But this weekend, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty contacted 300,000 churches offering free legal advice to any religious body "threatened by the IRS."
The reality is the IRS seldom takes steps to enforce the code, and Mr. Falwell wrote to churches this year telling them not to worry about the rules.
That hasn't kept the issue from heating up. Representative Jones charges that Mr. Lynn sent volunteers to "monitor and stifle conservative churches across this country."
Lynn says, "I have never recommended that anybody go to a church to scrutinize what the pastors are saying. Some AU chapters have visited to see if campaign literature was passed out the Sunday before the vote."
AU does send letters to churches highlighting the do's and don'ts of IRS rules. When violations come to its attention, AU raises complaints to the IRS. It has initiated 55 complaints since 1991.
A group in Johnson County, Kan., however, sparked an uproar in July by sending volunteers to check on local clergy. The Mainstream Coalition - a group active in public education - took the step when a local preacher organized other clergy to defeat candidates who voted against a state amendment banning same-sex marriage.
"We sent a letter to every church in the county encouraging civic education, but saying we might make a random visit to see if rules were being violated," says Caroline McKnight, executive director. "It hit the AP wire, and I've been fielding hate mail from Christians across America ever since."
Their action, which did not continue past July, spurred a countermovement on the right. William Murray of the Religious Freedom Action Coalition created Big Brother Church Watch to monitor liberal churches for political activity. His RatOutaChurch.org website recruits volunteers from across the US.
Yet, Mr. Murray says, "I don't think it's any more proper for us to be threatening churches than Barry Lynn. If [the Jones bill] passes, it wouldn't be an issue."
Others, however, say passage of the bill would raise more serious issues.
"People on both sides of the [congressional] aisle would like this because it opens to them a new vehicle for campaign finance," says Tuttle. While some of the bill's language says it wouldn't affect campaign finance, Tuttle says other language is less clear. And a previous version of the bill explicitly promoted campaign contributions.
Churches might end up under stricter scrutiny, says Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "What would it mean for a church to suddenly begin to fall under the regulatory regime of the Federal Election Commission?" he asks.
"At the heart of this is not just the status of the group but how they handle money," he adds. "Will their books be open to the FEC? What about reporting requirements, fines, corruption, criminality?"
The emotional issue calls for a public conversation, says McKnight. "The rules have been in place six decades, and for some reason it's a big thing this year," she says. "It's time for us to talk.