WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal appeals court has upheld the loss of tax-exempt status for a New York church that warned Christians about voting for Bill Clinton for president in 1992.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously upheld a federal judge’s 1999 decision supporting the Internal Revenue Service’s revocation of tax exemption for The Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y. Last year’s opinion noted it was the first time the IRS had stripped the tax exemption of a church not accused of being a “sham church” or whose sincerity was unchallenged, according to The Washington Times.
The IRS ruled against the church in 1995 after an investigation of advertisements in USA Today and The Times four days before the 1992 election. In those issues, the church and others sponsored the same full-page ad under the title “Christian Beware.” The ad warned Christians not to “put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.” It asked how Christians could vote for Clinton, citing his support of abortion, homosexual rights and condom distribution in schools, as well as Scriptures opposing such positions.
“The Bible warns us to not follow another man in his sin, nor help him promote sin — lest God chasten us,” the ad said. It did not endorse either of the other candidates, incumbent President George Bush or Ross Perot.
The ad also included in small print a notice tax-deductible gifts to pay for it would be accepted. It provided the church’s mailing address. The ad “produced hundreds of contributions” from throughout the country, the appeals court said in its May 12 opinion, according to The Times.
The court rejected the argument of Dan Little, the church’s pastor at the time, that the IRS had penalized the church while many churches supportive of the Clinton administration had not been punished for political activity, The Times reported.
“None of the reported activities involved the placement of advertisements in newspapers with nationwide circulations opposing a candidate and soliciting tax-deductible contributions to defray their cost,” the court said, according to The Times. “But even if the [IRS] could have revoked their tax exemptions, the church has failed to establish selective prosecution because it has failed to demonstrate that it was similarly situated to any of those other churches.”
In recent examples of politics, Vice President Al Gore, who will be the Democratic candidate for president, and first lady Hillary Clinton, who is running for the U.S. Senate in New York, endorsed each other in February at an Albany, N.Y., church, The Times reported. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic congressman, endorsed Gore during a service the same month at the New York City church of which he is pastor.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the original complaint against The Church at Pierce Creek, hailed the ruling.
“This decision slams the door on mixing religion and partisan politics,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a written release. “This is a staggering defeat for Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others who want to convert America’s churches into a partisan political machine.”
No decision has been made on appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court, said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law Justice, which represented the church’s interests, The Times reported. While he was disappointed with the ruling, Sekulow said he found a hopeful sign in the court’s description of the way a church might establish a political action committee apart from its tax-exempt body, according to The Times.
It was encouraging that “this court appears to provide a blueprint for churches to express their beliefs in a political context,” Sekulow said, The Times reported.
Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, was a member of The Church at Pierce Creek when the ad was placed.