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Threat to file IRS complaint draws response from ERLC exec

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A letter from a Washington-based church-state separation group to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has been countered by Land as a “threat” that will have no effect.

The letter, dated July 14 and penned by Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, warned Land that the airing of an interview of Jerry Falwell on Land’s daily radio program, “For Faith & Family,” might cause the SBC agency to lose its tax-exempt status. Lynn alleged that Falwell’s “partisan” comments could prompt his organization to file a complaint with the IRS if the interview, taped during the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, was aired.

“This is an attempt to threaten us and to engage in prior restraint of our speech,” Land told Baptist Press. “We are not going to impose censorship on our guests, particularly not as a result of such threats.”

In his letter to Lynn released June 21, Land said the program’s editing process “will in no way be influenced by what I believe any fair minded person would perceive to be your heavy handed attempt to intimidate our ministry and our freedom of speech.”

He said if Lynn wanted to know what portions of Falwell’s June 12 interview are cut, he needed to listen to the radio program, adding, “I cannot think of anyone who would benefit more from listening to the program.”

Land explained the interview taping, conducted in the agency’s booth in the exhibit hall of the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 13-14 annual meeting, ran for more than 40 minutes. He said the interview, which is tentatively scheduled for an early July airing, would be trimmed to approximately 18 minutes in the program’s “standard and customary editing process.” Land said as a matter of course he “would not air anything taped that would jeopardize the ERLC’s tax status.”

“Dr. Falwell’s program will be edited according to our normal editing standards as every other program,” Land said. “Barry Lynn’s letter will have absolutely no impact whatsoever in our editing of Jerry Falwell’s comments.”

During the convention, Land also interviewed Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas; Jerry Sutton of Two Rivers Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn.; Adrian Rogers of Bellevue Baptist Church, suburban Memphis, Tenn.; and Phil Roberts and Robert E. Reccord of the SBC’s North American Mission Board.

In his letter, Lynn urged Land “to refrain from airing this interview,” noting that its “partisan content” might place “the SBC’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy.” He said that “federal tax law prohibits any 501(c)(3) tax exempt group from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office,” claiming that during the interview Falwell “outlined a plan to help defeat Vice President Al Gore in the November presidential election.”

Land said that in his position he has never endorsed a candidate and never will, adding that For Faith & Family, the daily radio program hosted by Land on more than 200 radio stations nationwide, is dedicated to discussing the issues of the day, not advancing the cause of any political candidate.

“We have said on numerous occasions that Christians should not be endorsing candidates, but instead should be looking for candidates that endorse their values and convictions and beliefs,” Land said. “Americans have a choice to make this November. They need to register to vote, get involved in the political process and pray about their vote. As believers, our allegiance belongs to God, not to any party or candidate.”

Questioning the sincerity of Americans United’s motives, Land asked in his letter if Lynn’s group planned “on threatening IRS complaints against those churches who open their pulpits to Democrat candidates, or only to those ministries who interview persons like the Reverend Falwell.”

Land said that the ERLC will continue to meet Lynn’s group “on the front line of the struggle to defend both our priceless freedom of religion and our cherished freedom of speech,” promising, “We are not going away.”

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  • Dwayne Hastings