NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A conference call from presidential candidate Al Gore to black ministers urging them to “get out the vote” has prompted two normally adversarial groups to speak with one voice, criticizing the vice president for urging the clergymen to promote the Democrat ticket from their pulpits.
“I’m asking you in your sermons to do the work of the Lord here on earth,” Gore is reported to have said in the call from Air Force Two on Oct. 14. The press account which was reported in the Oct. 15 edition of The New York Times noted that Gore specifically asked the ministers to get “that message out urgently tomorrow,” which was Sunday.
Both Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State agreed the vice president’s request was troubling.
“It is particularly bothersome to hear that the vice president is encouraging ministers to violate clear IRS guidelines on partisan politicking in their churches,” said Land, who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“Where is the outrage?” Land asked. “Can you imagine the hue and cry in the electronic media if Governor Bush had placed such a similarly inappropriate call to Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell?”
Saying the media applies a “double standard” to candidates’ conduct, he noted the story about Gore’s call made only one news cycle.
In a letter to Gore, Lynn, the executive director of Americans United, said the newspaper story — if “accurate” — appears to cast the vice president as “asking religious leaders to endorse your candidacy from the pulpit.” In an AU news release, Lynn said such activity could place the “tax-exempt status of those churches at risk,” reminding Gore that IRS regulations forbid pastors in their official capacity with a church to endorse any candidate.
Earlier in the week, Tipper Gore, wife of the vice president, appeared at a rally in which the event’s coordinator, Michael King, indicated his support for the Gore-Lieberman ticket, adding, “God is on our side. He has ordained this.” Campaign signs supporting the Democrat presidential ticket were plentiful during the Oct. 11 event at Evangel Fellowship Church of God in Christ in Greensboro, N.C. King is pastor of the Garden of Prayer Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Greensboro, according to news reports.
Church involvement in the political process “can be a confusing area of the law,” acknowledged Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, in a recent ERLC periodical. Yet he said it is clear that churches are specifically prohibited “from participating in the campaign of a candidate for public office.”
As a nonprofit organization, most churches choose to be tax-exempt and are then classified by the IRS as a 501 (c)(3) corporation. Such tax status forbids partisan political activity on the part of the organization. Churches and other nonprofits may take a stand on legislative and ballot measures, as long as the resources dedicated to such efforts are insubstantial, and these organizations may distribute “neutral” voting guides, said the ACLJ’s Sekulow, in the Convention 2000 issue of Light magazine. These materials cannot endorse or reject a particular candidate for office, Sekulow continued, noting that churches are permitted to distribute voting aids that are “unbiased” and “include candidates’ positions on a broad range of issues.”
Land noted that the ERLC’s comparisons of the major parties’ political platforms easily fits within the IRS guidelines for distribution within a church. He said the publication, which was included in the Election 2000 issue of Light magazine, contains direct excerpts from pertinent sections of the two parties’ platforms. The comparisons of the Democrat and Republican Party platforms can be seen online at www.erlc.com/partyplatforms.htm.
Lynn and Land don’t always see eye-to-eye. In a late September mailing, Americans United warned 285,000 local churches of the “dangers” in distributing Christian Coalition voter guides. Alleging the guides are “partisan,” Lynn said the guides should not be in churches but instead “at the local recycling center or landfill.”
A similar mailing by Interfaith Alliance chapters in some states, including Florida, makes a broader appeal to pastors “to decline” distributing voter guides prepared by the Christian Coalition “or any other organization.” The group’s Oct. 4 letter to pastors called such attempts at voter education “manipulative.” The letter said “congregations that distribute such guides may be breaking the law and jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.” The Interfaith Alliance is an ecumenical organization whose membership is primarily mainline denomination churches. The alliance is known for its moderate to liberal positions on moral and legislative issues.
Said Land, “While churches must be discerning in what they provide their membership, they do have the right to distribute nonpartisan information that aids voters in clarifying the issues and the positions of candidates.” Campaigns to dissuade churches from making voter guides or other education pieces available may be tantamount to yelling fire where there is no fire, he said.
These official-looking letters that warn of IRS sanctions intimidate pastors and church leaders, effectively shutting down their voice in the public policy process, Land continued, hinting that that is an end that may not be entirely unappreciated by the groups making these threats.
“The underhanded efforts of certain special interest groups to disenfranchise people of faith through such fear-mongering are unacceptable,” Land said. “Churches have a constitutional right to speak out on moral and public policy issues that concern them.”