For the second time in a week, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Southern Baptist church for allegedly violating laws that prohibit tax-exempt charities from electioneering.
The church-state watchdog organization claims a July 4 sermon by Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., crossed a line from appropriate political speech into a partisan endorsement for President Bush.
“Pastor Floyd’s presentation seemed more like a Bush campaign commercial than a church service,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said Wednesday in a press release. “His sermon was clearly intervention in the campaign on behalf of Bush.”
Last Thursday Lynn lodged a similar complaint with the IRS against Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. Lynn said a column in the July 1 “Falwell Confidential” e-newsletter urging supporters to vote for Bush and contribute to a political action committee that supports Republicans violated IRS code governing political activity by non-profits.
Floyd, in a sermon broadcast on television to a national audience and an Internet webcast, cited polls showing that 5 million evangelicals did not vote in the 2000 presidential election, one of the closest in history, and that George W. Bush received 4 million fewer evangelical votes than Bob Dole got in 1996. He noted that evangelicals who did vote in 2000 strongly favored Bush over Al Gore.
“Why would evangelical Christians stay at home and not practice the responsibility of Christian citizenship, when God’s word, which we say we believe, calls us to stand up in our citizenship?” Floyd asked.
“I believe this will be one of the most critical elections in U.S. history,” Floyd said. “Rarely have we seen two candidates so diametrically opposed in their convictions.”
“One candidate believes that the United States is at war with terrorism. The other candidate believes we’re not at war at all, but in a lawsuit.
“One candidate believes in the sanctity of unborn life, signing legislation banning partial-birth abortion and declaring that human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. The other believes in abortion on demand, voting six times in the United States Senate against the ban and insisting there is no such thing as a partial birth.
“One candidate believes that marriage is a God-ordained institution between one man and one woman and has proposed a constitutional amendment protecting marriage. The other was one of only 14 U.S. senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996.
“One candidate publicly and unashamedly confesses faith in Christ and acknowledges that, ‘My faith helps me in the service to people.’ The other encourages private belief and argues that religious beliefs need not influence his decisions as a public official.”
In a Tuesday letter to the IRS, Lynn alleged Floyd’s sermon “was intended to intervene in the election” on behalf of President Bush by “encouraging congregants to cast their ballots for Bush.”
“The church is known for its stand on social issues and its opposition to legal abortion and gay rights,” Lynn wrote. “By lauding Bush’s stands on these and other issues and attacking Kerry’s, Floyd was plainly telling his congregation to be sure to vote for Bush.”
Church politicking has become a hot issue this summer, with a memo from the Bush-Cheney campaign seeking volunteers in Bush-friendly churches to perform 22 duties, including turning over church directories and handing out voter guides.
This summer also saw launch of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s iVoteValues.com, a voter-registration effort that encourages Baptists to “vote your values instead of your political affiliation or pocketbook.”
Floyd mentioned the ERLC initiative in his sermon. He invited worshippers who were not registered to vote to do so after the service at tables at the rear of the sanctuary. He also encouraged listeners to visit the Web site iVoteValues.com in the next few days.
“This powerful tool will help you determine your core values and your position on key issues before you vote,” Floyd said. “Imagine the impact believers could have on our government, its leadership and our nation if we all simply registered to vote and voted our values.”
Floyd, a past chairman of the SBC Executive Committee who has been pastor at Springdale for 15 years, said the U.S. “stands at crossroads” in the November presidential election.
“Since the founding of our republic, Christians have been active in American government, shaping our Constitution and federal institutions and opposing moral wrong, first slavery and later racial discrimination,” he said. “Throughout our history, Christians have been on the front lines of debate and policy making and have stood for what is right. I ask you now, where will you stand this November?”
Charities, educational organizations and religious organizations, including churches, are exempt from paying taxes under section 501(c)(3) in the IRS code. They are forbidden, however, from participating or intervening in any political campaign or for or against any candidate.
Churches that endorse candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund-raising, make statements or become involved in other activities that “may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate” risk losing their tax-exempt status, according to an election-year advisory from the IRS in April.
A member of Floyd’s church staff told a reporter that the sermon’s message was to “vote God” rather than for a particular candidate. “The last thing we’re going to do is tell people who to vote for,” Alan Damron, associate pastor for community impact, told the Arkansas News Bureau.
Damron said no church in U.S. history has lost its tax-exempt status for being too political, and that the church provided transcripts of the sermon to an attorney who said it “in no way” violates IRS rules.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.