A church-state watchdog group that this summer asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate partisan activities by two conservative Baptist pastors accused of endorsing President Bush on Wednesday said a Miami church also violated federal law by hosting a rally for Sen. John Kerry.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said the IRS should investigate the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church for an Oct. 10 rally featuring speeches by Kerry, former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Gaston E. Smith, introduced Kerry as “the next president of the United States” and told the crowd God would use Kerry to “bring our country out of despair, despondency and disgust.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a press release that the event appeared to violate federal tax law that bars tax-exempt groups from intervening in political campaigns. Lynn described the rally as “over the top.”
“This appears to have been a clear case of a church hosting a partisan political rally,” Lynn wrote in a letter to the tax agency. “I believe the obvious aim of this even was to endorse Kerry’s candidacy and spur congregants to vote for him. As such, the church has run afoul of federal tax law.”
Lynn previously wrote similar letters asking the IRS to investigate activities by Arkansas Baptist pastor Ronnie Floyd and television preacher Jerry Falwell that he called improper endorsements of President Bush. Critics of those letters accused AU of having a double standard and criticizing only conservative churches for political activity
On Tuesday another group identified with the religious left called on Kerry and his campaign to stop politicizing religion and using houses of worship for political purposes.
“Our concern is to protect the sanctity of houses of worship and the integrity of religion,” Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said in a statement. “There is no place for partisan political campaigning and organizing in a religious congregation.”
Gaddy said he is not against political discussion and education on the issues in church. He and conservative religious leader Paul Weyrich joined Thursday in a letter thanking CBS news commentator Bob Schieffer for asking a question about faith and policy during Wednesday night’s presidential debate.
Schieffer’s question, “What part does your faith play on your policy decisions,” was one of five questions that Gaddy and Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, suggested to Schieffer in an earlier letter dated Oct. 6.
An Oklahoma Baptist leader said the IRS ban on politicking by non-profits is a good idea.
“Ministers who insist that they need to endorse candidates and parties from the pulpit should also be prepared to operate under the same rules that apply to every other partisan political organization,” Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, wrote in an Oct. 14 Web log.
“That would require that they give up the federal tax exemption for contributions to their organization. Contributions to partisan political organizations are not deductible from federal income taxes. Otherwise, some partisans would be subsidized by taxpayers in their political activities while others were not.”