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Religious-liberty group: Ministers have right to preach on politics from pulpit

By Phillip Taylor
Special to
The Freedom Forum Online


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As some clergy prepare to discuss politics in church during this final weekend before Election Day, a group advocating church-state separation is warning religious leaders that actually endorsing any candidate "could get churches in legal trouble."

In an Oct. 17 news release, Americans United for Separation of Church and State warned against outright endorsements and said it had sent a letter to Vice President Al Gore protesting his exhortation of African-American pastors to support his presidential drive.

According to the Oct. 15 New York Times, Gore took part in a conference call "to mobilize his campaign's 'get out the vote' drive ... by imploring black preachers to push for his election from their pulpits." The Times quoted Gore as telling the pastors, "I'm asking you in your sermons to do the work of the Lord here on earth."

"This is highly inappropriate, since it could put the tax-exempt status of those churches at risk," Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn wrote to Gore.

Americans United has also criticized the Christian Coalition for supplying churches with "voter guides" that it says are thinly disguised campaign propaganda favoring Texas Gov. George W. Bush's candidacy. The group contends that distributing such literature also puts churches' tax exemptions in danger.

But some religious-liberties advocates dispute the Americans United claims, accusing the group of raising unwarranted fears that any political discourse from the pulpit could summon the taxman.

"Try to imagine a church that doesn't preach about morality issues," said Anthony Picarello, legal counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "Is that conceivable? Can you ask a church to do that just because a candidate might express some of the same views on that issue?"

But that is what Americans United wants religious leaders to believe, Picarello said. He said the group's intent is to keep churches quiet about issues in the election.

A spokesman for Americans United agreed that religious leaders have a right to take political stands on issues such as abortion, health care and gay rights.

"But there's a difference between speaking on a political issue and distributing partisan political materials," said Rob Boston of Americans United.

Boston said the sole intent of American United's letter to 285,000 churches against distributing the voter guides was to keep ministers and religious leaders from involving themselves in a partisan effort to get Republicans elected. He said that while the coalition can produce the guides, it can't distribute them at churches without jeopardizing the churches' tax-exempt status.

Reaction to his group's voter-guides letter from church leaders has been mixed, Boston said, but mostly downright negative. "Some, quite frankly, are so mean-spirited and rude," Boston said. "I've found it hard to believe they came from churches."

But some experts say that's because the intent of the Americans United letter was to discourage ministers from preaching about anything remotely connected to politics.

The Becket Fund responded with its own letter telling houses of worship that the First Amendment protects the rights of ministers "to preach about anything at all ... without the threat of fines or other government sanctions."

"In our view, such penalties would represent both a grave offense to the free expression of religious and political views, and an impermissible government preference for politically docile religious groups over politically outspoken ones," wrote Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund, in a letter posted on the group's Web site.

Picarello said that if the government penalized preachers for political speech, then it would have fined abolitionist preacher Charles Finney for advocating for the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. for organizing civil rights marches in the 1960s. And he said it would sanction African-American preachers if they responded to Gore's request to pray for his election.

Most religious groups agree that federal tax and election laws forbid churches from endorsing candidates. Even the Christian Coalition's Web site specifically instructs pastors and their churches to refrain from endorsing candidates and distributing materials that clearly favor one candidate or political party.

Still, Picarello said the IRS and the Federal Election Commission have only pursued the most egregious cases of church endorsements, such as in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, a lawsuit decided earlier this year by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In that case, a church was sanctioned after it placed ads in USA TODAY and The Washington Post in opposition of a candidate, then asked for donations to recoup the costs of the ad.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in freedom-of-religion issues, agreed that government agencies have refrained from trying to stop preachers politicizing from the pulpit. He said that because the government has never pursued such an incident it means there isn't a guiding court case on this issue.

"We don't have that definitive case because the [IRS] is not willing to file that case," Laycock said. "No one wants to file that case. And they are unwilling because of the potential political backlash it would raise, and they are unwilling because of First Amendment problems."


Religious groups divided over bills to allow pulpit politicking
Measures would lift IRS ban on political activity at churches, allowing religious leaders to endorse candidates who agree with their moral teachings.  05.15.02

Groups urge churches not to distribute Christian Coalition voter guides
Americans United, Interfaith Council say distribution of pamphlets would violate federal law exempting churches from paying taxes.  10.24.00