WASHINGTON (BP)–A George Washington University law professor says he has a solution to the confusion churches experience with the Internal Revenue Service, but a Southern Baptist church-state specialist says it won’t be tried anytime soon.
Speaking at a panel discussion on the involvement of religious organizations in this year’s election campaign, GWU’s Robert Tuttle said that the deductibility of charitable contributions should be eliminated so that all organizations are treated the same.
“The IRS doesn’t need to monitor,” he said. “Monitoring raises the most serious entanglement questions of any context. You simply eliminate the deductibility of your charitable contribution. I think that is not a particularly attractive option, but I think it’s the only one that allows us to avoid making these judgments.”
Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, had a quick rejoinder.
“I’ll make a prediction — in your lifetime and mine, that never happens,” Land said.
Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute and a government professor at the University of Maryland, joined Land and Tuttle to discuss churches, politics and the IRS in a Sept. 28 discussion sponsored in Washington, D.C., by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Much of the discussion focused on an IRS rule that limits political activity by churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations. Gifts to such organizations are tax deductible, but an IRS decision that a church or other entity has violated the rule –- though it has rarely happened -– can result in a loss of deductibility for at least a period of time.
In introducing Walters and Land, Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo said they work closely with the “two religious communities -– black Protestants and white evangelicals -– that are most frequently accused of pushing the envelope too far” on political activity.
Black churches are undergoing increased scrutiny from the IRS this year, Walters said.
“But I have not yet seen the newspaper article that would suggest that either the Justice Department or the IRS has gone after [white evangelical churches] with the same vigor,” Walters said. “Maybe they have, and I just don’t know about it.”
Land replied, “I can tell you that evangelical churches feel they have been harassed by the IRS, and they complain that they get harassed in ways that African-American churches don’t, and African-American churches seem to be complaining that they get harassed in ways that white evangelicals don’t. Perhaps they need to get together and compare notes and figure out who the common enemy is –- government regulation and the intimidation by the IRS.”
The problem may not be as much the IRS as other entities, Land said.
“I think there are nongovernmental groups that do try to use the IRS as a bogeyman to scare churches,” Land said, citing the efforts of Americans United for Separation of Church and State as an example.
Churches, however, should not be involved in partisan political activity, such as endorsing candidates, Land said.
“The history of political parties is that they will use and will exploit anyone they can exploit for their purposes, and that includes churches and that includes religious organizations,” he said. “And those purposes are often at odds with the purposes for which people of faith are involved in the political process and in the public policy process.”
The ERLC, Land said, supports the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, which would amend the IRS code to protect the tax-exempt status of religious organizations when they address political issues. That doesn’t mean churches should endorse candidates, he said.
“We don’t think that churches ought to be getting involved in partisan political activity, but we think that ought to be a decision made by the church, not by the government,” Land said.
Land described the ERLC’s voter registration and voter education campaign — iVoteValues — and the cautious approach it takes. He also read from the campaign’s “Legal Do’s and Don’t’s,” which offers guidelines on activities by churches and pastors.
Using a football analogy, he said, “We’re not only going to stay inside the sidelines; we’re going to stay inside the hash marks.
“Now, if individual Southern Baptist churches want to take off and run as close to the sideline as they can, that’s up to them and their general counsel and their legal advisers.”
Land explained his opposition to an outreach to churches by the Bush-Cheney campaign, which included an effort to obtain membership directories from churches.
“I’m appalled and irritated, and I think this is a very dangerous thing and shouldn’t be done,” Land said he told a reporter when the outreach was revealed. “This is a giant step too far.
The response to his opposition to the Bush-Cheney outreach from among Southern Baptists “has been about two to one favorable to the position I took,” Land said at the forum. “Interestingly enough, to the best of my ability to discern … not one pastor has disagreed with me. All of the one-third who disagreed with me have been lay people.”
Walters said black churches “seem somehow disconnected from what’s going on in the political season this time around,” though he also observed that the “black church is more highly politicized than ever before.”
Walters attributed the disconnection to three factors: (1) An increased challenge by the IRS to black churches; (2) “voter suppression” efforts, as well as “voter integrity” programs identified with Attorney General John Ashcroft, and (3) Democratic 527 organizations, whose voter registration and turn-out-the-vote efforts reduce the role of black churches, he said.
The black church’s participation in political mobilization, Walters said, dates to slavery, when “the church was the only institution that was allowed to flourish.” Because the church prospered, it took on other parts of life, including politics, he said.
“As the political participation of blacks increased, so did, over time, the role of the church increase,” he said.
A yet-to-be published Pew Forum study of 1,900 black pastors that he helped conduct, Walters said, included these findings:
— 78 percent agreed or strongly agreed black churches should be involved in politics;
— 16 percent said a politician had spoken in their church in the last two years;
— 68 percent helped in voter registration drives;
— 52 percent gave voters rides to the polls.
The IRS rule, Tuttle said, “is not in any way required by any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s religion clauses. Nothing about the doctrine of separation of church and state –- to the extent there is such a doctrine — would require that religious organizations not involve themselves in political activity.
“As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a conceivable argument that the Constitution would prohibit such activity by religious organizations. So, it is a statutory and regulatory limit. It is not a limit that arises out of the Constitution,” Tuttle said.
Courts have seen the burden placed on religious exercise by the IRS rule as “quite small,” Tuttle said. For one thing, the rule applies to all charitable organizations, not just religious ones, he said.
“There is no evidence the application of the standard has been discriminatory,” Tuttle said.
The ERLC’s “Legal Do’s and Don’t’s” is available online at www.ivotevalues.com by clicking on the “pastors only” tab. The Pew Forum has published a guide to the IRS rule titled “Politics and the Pulpit: 2004,” which may be downloaded at www.pewforum.org/religion-politics.