Talk on church politicking at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile (February 16, 2014)

Talk on church politicking at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile (February 16, 2014)

After my talk with Pastor Rhett Ellis of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile. Photo Credit: Christy Scott.

After my talk with Pastor Rhett Ellis of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile. Photo Credit: Christy Scott.

On February 16, 2014, I gave a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile on the topic of church politicking. I brought up the history of the Johnson Amendment, Americans United’s lawsuit against the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton which successfully revoked the church’s tax exempt status, the Alliance Defending Freedom’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” urging clergy members to defy the ban, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service for failure to enforce the ban.

My name is Amanda Scott and I am a Paralegal student at Faulkner State Community College in Bay Minette.

Today I am here to talk to you about the issue of church politicking.

Let’s start with some examples of what churches may and may not do under current law. What churches may do is register their congregation members to vote, provide information on candidates and questions on the ballot, and sponsor an event allowing all candidates to speak.

Churches may support or oppose legislation related to the church’s operations without any stipulations, as well as unrelated legislation with the stipulation that it does comprise a substantial amount of the church’s activities.

What churches may not do is urge their congregation to vote for or against a particular candidate during a service, in an article published in the church’s newsletter, or on a sign outside the church.

But has this always been the law?

In 1954, the United States Senate was considering a major overhaul of the federal tax code.

Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson introduced an amendment, commonly referred to as the Johnson Amendment, to amend section 501(c)(3) to prohibit the “influence and participation in, or intervention in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

His amendment was accepted by voice vote unanimously and without debate. Now imagine that happening today with our current partisan Congress.

Some scholars, such as Dr. James D. Davidson at Purdue University, in his article “Why Churches Can’t Support or Oppose Political Candidates,” suggest that Senator Johnson was in fact attempting to target certain anti-communist organizations.

He provides an example of an organization called the Facts Forum.

The Facts Forum was tax exempt, and although they explicitly stated that “No substantial part of the activities of [this organization] shall ever be carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation,” there was sufficient evidence that showed that three aides of Senator Joseph McCarthy helped organized their television series.

Those aides were his former assistant and his then wife, Jean Kerr; his administrative assistant, Victor Johnson, and his close friend and political ally, Robert E. Lee. They ensured that he received favorable treatment whenever he appeared on the show.

In 1992, the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, New York, published two full page advertisements in the newspapers USA Today and the Washington Times urging people to vote against presidential candidate Governor Bill Clinton.

The advertisement was titled “Christians Beware: Do Not Put the Economy Ahead of the Ten Commandments” and asserted that Governor Clinton’s positions on abortion, homosexuality, and the distribution of contraception to teenagers in public schools violated Biblical precepts.

At the bottom of each advertisement, it stated, “This advertisement was co-sponsored by the Church at Pierce Creek, Daniel J. Little, Senior Pastor, and by churches and concerned Christians nationwide. Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted. Make donations to: The Church at Pierce Creek.”

The group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) against the church.

The IRS launched an investigation and found sufficient evidence to revoke the church’s tax exempt status.

The church, represented by the group the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), filed a lawsuit against the IRS in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. They alleged that the IRS’ revocation of their tax exempt status violated their rights under the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment and constituted selective prosecution under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The Court rejected their claims and ruled in the IRS’ favor.

Pastor Daniel J. Little was defiant of the ruling, and he said on a now-defunct cable network, “Why should we consult attorneys? We have the Word of God… Principle sometimes takes precedent over silly laws.”

In 2008, the group Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund, organized an event called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on October 5th. They urged pastors across the country to defy the ban on church politicking by recording videos of themselves endorsing and opposing candidates for public office and to send copies of the videos to the IRS as an act of civil disobedience.

The IRS did not respond.

In 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the IRS. They alleged that they engaged in preferential treatment of churches in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Under IRS regulations, all 501(c)3 non-profit organizations must file an annual Form-990 with the exception of churches.

The Form-990 requires the detailed reports on revenue and functional expenses, activities, governance, management, how groups fulfill their mission, and what proportion is spent on programs, management and fundraising.

The FFRF and other secular tax exempt nonprofit organizations have to spend thousands of dollars each year to complete the form, while churches do not.

As of current, two federal judges – Judge Lynn Adelman and Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin – granted them standing and allowed their case to proceed.

So, I pose the following questions to you: Does the separation of church and state call for a ban on church politicking? Or does it violate the freedom of speech of pastors?

 

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