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Pastors say tax-law charges are unfounded effort to intimidate

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Two prominent Southern Baptist pastors are standing firm against charges they violated their churches’ tax-exempt status, saying that the charges are nothing more than an attempt to frighten churches into silence.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service July 15 about Virginia pastor Jerry Falwell and five days later sent a letter to the IRS about Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd.

Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., wrote in his July 1 e-mail newsletter that for “conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush.”

Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., preached a sermon July 4 in which he compared the stances of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry on key moral issues — such as abortion and same-sex “marriage” — although he did not endorse either candidate.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, says the two men threatened their churches’ tax-exempt status. But Falwell and Floyd disagreed.

Floyd’s church issued a statement asserting that the charges by Lynn are “nothing more than a threat to pastors and our churches” to “intimidate” them “into silence.”

“The unfounded accusation made by this organization and others is nothing more than an attack on our First Amendment right of free speech,” the statement by First Baptist in Springdale read.

Pastors throughout the nation, the church said, “should be” involved in the “cultural war.”

“This war is between what is right and what is wrong according to God’s Holy Word … the Bible.”

Falwell noted that during election years, Democratic candidates routinely speak in African American churches, although Americans United does not protest those actions. On July 18, Falwell said, Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, spoke at a predominantly black church, where the church’s pastor endorsed the Democratic ticket.

“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 in a letter posted on his website.

“However, no such letter is sent to African-American churches or to liberal mainline denominational churches. Traditionally, the Democratic candidates speak in many African-American churches during their presidential campaigns.”

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has launched an initiative, iVoteValues.com, to help educate churches about the do’s and don’ts of political involvement. The initiative has a goal of registering 2 million voters.

In February then-Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham said the election would present voters with a “very clear choice” as to “what kind of values” will represent the country.

“[T]here are a number of people in our churches, who, rather than voting family values and voting faith values, they vote political values, and we need to train and nurture and help our people understand what the issues are and how to respond in the voting booth,” Graham said. “That’s not telling people how to vote, that’s helping them understand and frame the election in terms not of politics but of principle.”

The statement by First Baptist in Springdale said that churches have a mandate to stand up for morality.

“Pastors can preach on biblical, moral, and social issues, such as traditional marriage and abortion, urge the congregation to register to vote, and then to vote, overview the positions of the candidates, and may personally endorse candidates,” the church statement read. “Churches may distribute non-partisan voter guides, register voters, provide transportation to the polls, hold candidate forums, and introduce visiting candidates.”

Falwell urged pastors not to be “intimidated” by the actions of Americans United.

“[P]astors, continue to speak the truth from your pulpits,” Falwell wrote. “Don’t let any inaccurate letters scare you away from urging your congregations to political action.”

Floyd was “well within the boundaries set by our government,” the statement by First Baptist Springdale read.

“Therefore, we still believe that when you go to the polls this November, and any date in the future, you should not vote for or against any political party or politician,” the statement read. “Just vote God … His values, His ways, His Word.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust