A second group has lodged a formal complaint against Jerry Falwell for endorsing President George W. Bush for re-election.
The Campaign Legal Center on July 22 filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying Falwell violated campaign-finance laws prohibiting corporations from endorsing federal candidates to the general public.
The organization also sent a letter this week to the Internal Revenue Service saying Falwell broke tax rules prohibiting tax-exempt charities from endorsing candidates.
Earlier, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a similar complaint against Falwell with the IRS.
Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., sent a “Falwell Confidential” e-mail July 1 urging supporters to vote for Bush and contribute to a political action committee that supports the president and other Republicans.
“For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush,” said the memo, which also appeared on the Web site Falwell.com. “The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable.”
Falwell went on to say that voting for Bush “may not be enough” and urged readers to also send a financial gift to the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee led by Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate who served eight years in the Reagan White House.
In its complaint to the FEC, the Campaign Legal Center said Jerry Falwell Ministries and a related entity, the Liberty Alliance, both violated campaign-finance laws by endorsing Bush and soliciting donations for a PAC on a public Web site.
Corporations are allowed to endorse federal candidates in internal communications, such as a newsletter to stockholders, but cannot make endorsements to the general public except in statements to the press, according to the complaint.
“Tax law is designed to give special advantages to groups that do important charity and educational work. The law doesn’t confer the same advantages on groups that work to elect one candidate over another,” Frances Hill, director of tax policy at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a press release. “The line between political groups and charities is important, and we hope this complaint will prompt the FEC to protect it.”
The complaint also said Falwell failed to include any disclaimers on the Web site, which are required by law.
“This is not an instance of a pastor in the pulpit preaching to his or her congregation, but instead a corporate entity using undisclosed corporate funds to engage in campaigning and political fund raising with the general public,” Gerald Hebert, the group’s director of litigation, said in the press release. “Campaigning by incorporated entities is blatantly illegal.
In its letter to the IRS, the Campaign Legal Center said the allegation that Falwell violated the tax code is “not a difficult case” under Section 501(c)(3), which says an organization can claim tax exemption only if it “does not participate or intervene in, (including the publication or distribution of statements), any candidate for public office.”
The Campaign Legal Center describes itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization which works in the areas of campaign finance, communications and government ethics.”
Falwell called it a “Democratic National Committee-surrogate organization attempting to intimidate conservative pastors and their church members to prevent them from exercising their First Amendment rights,” in a statement quoted in the New York Times.
Falwell says he did nothing wrong. In a July 21 “Falwell Confidential,” he accused Barry Lynn of Americans United of using scare tactics against conservative pastors.
“About this time each election year, AU sends what I term a ‘fright letter’ to thousands of conservative evangelical pastors, telling them–quite incorrectly–that any use of voter guides, political discourse or other such activity could result in a loss of tax-exempt status for their churches,” Falwell wrote.
“Every American pastor, as a tax-paying citizen, is free to express his views and opinions,” Falwell said. “I continually urge pastors who receive the traditional Barry Lynn ‘scare letter’ to simply ignore it. America needs your voice!”
Another Southern Baptist church targeted in a separate IRS complaint by Lynn and Americans United also issued a statement disputing his allegations.
Last week Lynn wrote a letter of complaint against Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., for a July 4 sermon, which “seemed more like a Bush campaign commercial than a church service.”
The church responded with a July 23 press release dismissing Lynn’s complaint as “nothing more than a threat to pastors and our churches in America, attempting to intimidate the church into silence.”
A moderate Baptist ethicist advised ministers to be wary of confusing biblical principles with partisan politics. “Real faith leaders remind people of faith that parties are neither perfectly moral nor completely immoral,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com
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