NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If you are above a certain age, you’ll remember the 1980 presidential debate where Ronald Reagan, with a grin spreading across his face, said about then-President Jimmy Carter, “There he goes again.”
So with a tip of the hat to President Reagan and with news reports heralding Barry Lynn’s mailing of his perennial election-season letter to churches, I have to say, “There he goes again.”
When there is a nip in the air and dogwood leaves are starting to blush and campaign signs litter the highways, it must be time for Lynn’s Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to roll their scare machine out of the closet.
Lynn is tilting at windmills. His vision is an America where church and state are separated in a public square devoid of Americans touting their faith-informed perspectives. While he feigns concern for churches running afoul of Internal Revenue Service regulations, I sense his greater concern is that conservative Americans might actually consider their faith as they determine their Election Day choices.
In a Sept. 18, 2006, address Lynn delivered at the National Press Club, he warned of efforts by the so-called “Religious Right” to “lure churches into partisan politics.” He bemoaned that fact that an organization headed by James Dobson is focusing its efforts in eight states where U.S. Senate races are being carefully watched. Yet he neglected to mention that a newly hatched liberal evangelical group is also targeting some of these states. And he failed to note this particular Dobson group is a non-profit 501(c)(4) political advocacy organization that has every right to be involved in partisan activity, as opposed to 501(C)(3) organizations, such as churches, which are not permitted to engage in such activity.
Lynn may plead that his efforts are to inform religious leaders the “Religious Right” is engaging in “hardball politicking” not “permissible ‘voter education,’” but his actions invariably cast a chill over the proper and legal public policy activities that houses of worship and individual believers can and should conduct.
In a press release Lynn decries those he says are “dragging churches into partisan politics”; I am concerned that Lynn’s efforts are aimed at dragging Americans of faith off a platform that allows them equal access to the civic marketplace of ideas.
I consistently stress to Southern Baptist churches and others, in my public statements and on our website, www.iVoteValues.com, exactly what being classified as a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity under the Internal Revenue Code entails.
A recent report from the IRS emphasized “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” But such organizations can “encourage people to participate in the electoral process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, conducted in a non-partisan manner,” as well as hosting public forums and the publishing and/or distributing of non-partisan “voter education guides.”
While I do not recommend pastors and other faith leaders expressing publicly their personal opinions of candidates during an election season, the IRS has no such restriction.
In its interpretation of Internal Revenue Code, the IRS says leaders of such organizations, including places of worship, are entitled to free expression of their personal political views, as long as they state clearly their opinion is their own and not representative of the organization they serve. I encourage you to visit iVoteValues.com for links to these important IRS documents.
To maintain its tax-exempt status with the IRS, a place of worship must play by IRS rules and avoid all partisan activities. While I may find the IRS restrictions burdensome, the IRS is serious about targeting those who flout the law. But these regulations do not apply to people of faith themselves.
Short of supporting one candidate over another, religious institutions enjoy unbridled freedom under the U.S. Constitution to thoroughly address the issues near and dear to them according to the precepts of their faith. And I hasten to add that it is perfectly legal and appropriate for elected officials to allow — as if they truly have a choice — their private religious beliefs to influence their policy decisions. While Lynn argues otherwise, I believe it is he who is fear mongering.
Leaders in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques have the unique role of offering a prophetic voice on the issues that concern Americans, from the defense of traditional marriage to the continued genocide in Darfur and everything between.
It is instructive that, of all the issues his organization addresses, at top of the list located on AU’s website is “Religious Right Research.” Lynn appears to have much less interest in researching the activities of the “Religious Left.”
I am all for making sure places of worship who have decided to register as a 501(c)(3) organizations understand the restrictions under which they must operate in an election season. I am against what can be construed as bullying tactics wherein pastors and other faith leaders feel compelled to disengage from civic affairs for fear of a visit from the IRS.
The church and its followers should not be quarantined or walled off from where civic discourse takes place. Religious values should have a bearing on public policy; it is a perversion of the concept of separation of church and state — as originally and rightly intended — to think otherwise.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.