Coalition created by famed atheist’s son forms group to monitor liberal churches for tax violations
A conservative religious organization is keeping an eye on local churches, threatening to report any that endorse or disparage political candidates in violation of their nonprofit status.
If there is any indication of an endorsement of, or objection to, a specific political candidate, the group has said it will report that church to the Internal Revenue Service, which could revoke their tax-exempt status.
The group is targeting so-called “liberal churches” such as the Metropolitan Community churches, Unitarian Universalist fellowships and African Methodist Episcopal churches.
“You tend to hear more about the conservatives, but no one is checking the liberal churches,” said Peggy Birchfield, executive director of the Religious Freedom Action Coalition in Washington.
The organization, founded by Spotsylvania County resident William J. Murray, aims to make sure that political activities of liberal churches are reported, she said.
Murray’s mother, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was an active atheist who filed a lawsuit that eventually led to a Supreme Court decision banning school-sponsored prayer.
The group, functioning through its Web site, ratoutachurch.org, was created several weeks ago in response to a IRS complaint filed last month by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Birchfield said.
The Americans United, based in Washington, charged that televangelist Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, violated tax-exemption laws when he endorsed President Bush on his ministries Web site. He specifically urged conservative people of faith to vote for the president’s re-election.
The IRS won’t comment on the complaint.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director, said his organization’s agenda is nonpartisan.
“We have reported churches that have endorsed John Kerry as well as George Bush,” he said. “We want to get all churches and religious groups to obey the law.”
The Americans United gathers most of its information from news organizations or church members who are upset with their houses of worship. It doesn’t send people to churches, he said.
Local ministers say they aren’t worried either way.
“We’ve got nothing to hide,” said the Rev. Stephanie Burns, pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Fredericksburg. “We do make available voter registration materials and focus on issues in our community, but we lobby the issue within the limitation of our 501(c)(3) status.”
The Metropolitan Community Church is a Christian denomination reaching out primarily to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.
The Rev. Jeff Jones, senior minister at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, said he has no concerns of the monitors.
“We are involved in social justice issues,” he said. “But we stay focused on issues, not parties or candidates.”
Under the federal tax code, all 501(c)(3) groups, including religious organizations and churches, are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of –or in opposition to–any candidate for elective office.
“In general, any tax-exempt organization can state their religious position, for example, their stand on marriage and abortion,” said Gloria Wajciechowski, IRS spokesperson for Virginia. “But they can’t advise people who to vote for.”
Religious organizations can invite political candidates to speak as long as they give equal opportunity for all the other candidates, she said.
They also can do voter-registration drives as long as they don’t expend any of the tax-exempt funds to support any political candidate, she said.
“Leaders are not restricted for free expression on political matters as long as they are speaking as individuals and not the organization,” she said.
The Rev. Carlin Dempsey, senior pastor of Kings Highway Baptist Church in southern Stafford County, said he once was accused of violating the law despite following the rules.
After giving a sermon years ago, a man approached Dempsey and said the church’s tax-exempt status was going to be revoked because the minister stated from the pulpit who he was voting for.
“I specifically said this is why I was going to vote for someone, not the church,” he said. “I have very strong feelings about the political arena. Reverend Carlin Dempsey is not tax exempt. I have a right to speak my mind.”
There was a case, however, where the IRS revoked a tax-exempt status of a New York church for its involvement in politics.
In the Branch Ministries v. Richardson 1996 case, the U.S. District Court sided with the IRS when it revoked the church’s exempt status.
The church placed full-page advertisements in USA Today and the Washington Times in which it urged Christians not to vote for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton because of his positions on certain moral issues.
In 1996, the Christian Action Network was accused of violating the Federal Election Campaign Act for heavily criticizing Clinton on his stand on gay and lesbian rights during a television ad.
But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said it did not violate the act because it did not expressly tell voters to cast their ballots against Clinton.
To avoid any confusion, some local ministers just don’t mix politics and religion at church.
The Rev. Paige Young, senior pastor at Ferry Farm Baptist Church in Stafford, said he doesn’t bring political situations into a church.
In his 41 years as a minister, he has never even mentioned a candidate’s name during a sermon.
“We have a cross section of people here, liberals and conservatives,” he said. “It’s my responsibility to minister to their needs as individuals and not try to impose political views on them.”
Staff librarians Craig Schulin and Sandra Mahaffey contributed to this story.