Last Wednesday, September 24th, Americans United sent out a press release that read as follows: Houses of worship that flagrantly violate federal tax law by taking part in a Religious Right-led effort to politicize America’s pulpits this Sunday will be promptly reported to the Internal Revenue Service, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group based in Arizona, is urging pastors to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit on Sept. 28, even though IRS regulations forbid tax-exempt groups from intervening in political campaigns. Reportedly, about 30 churches will participate.
“Taking part in this reckless stunt is a one-way ticket to loss of tax exemption,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “We’ll be watching, and pastors who violate the law can expect their churches to be reported to the IRS the first thing Monday morning.”
Since 1996, Americans United has sponsored Project Fair Play, an effort designed to educate religious leaders about the requirements of federal tax law. AU has filed complaints to the IRS about 85 houses of worship and religious non-profits. One church lost its tax exemption, some have been audited and others have received IRS warnings.
Lynn noted that tax exemption is a privilege and it comes with certain limitations.
“Houses of worship exist to enrich people's spiritual lives, not act like political machines that issue marching orders to voters,” Lynn said. “They are tax-exempt because their work is religious and charitable, not political.”
Earlier this month, prominent Washington tax attorneys and former IRS officials Marcus Owens, Mort Caplin and Cono Namorato told the IRS that the ADF’s scheme is a “mass violation of federal tax law” and clearly violates the ethics rules governing practice before the IRS. They called for an IRS investigation and appropriate penalties for the ADF.
Meanwhile, Americans United is circulating a letter to churches advising religious leaders on the rules governing tax-exempt entities and politics. Churches should not participate in the ADF’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” scheme if they want to hold on to their tax exemption.
Many clergy have opposed the ADF’s plan for this Sunday.
Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami released a statement indicating that none of his Catholic churches or priests will participate in the initiative.
The Rev. Eric Williams of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio, urged clergy all over America to give sermons in support of church-state separation and against partisan politics in houses of worship.
Americans United’s Web site, http://www.projectfairplay.org/, educates pastors, laypeople and others about the requirements of federal tax law. It also serves as a place to report tax law violations to Americans United.
Added Lynn, “Pastors who are thinking of joining the ADF’s gambit still have time to change their minds and I urge them to do so.”