Judgment Day

Article excerpt

IRS Can Revoke Tax Exemption Of Church For Paristan Politicking, Federal Appellate Court Rules

In a sweeping defeat for the Religious Right, a federal appellate court has ruled that the Internal Revenue Service may revoke the tax exemption of churches that engage in partisan politics.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled May 12 that the IRS acted properly when it withdrew the exemption of the Church at Pierce Creek, a Binghamton, N.Y., congregation that bought political advertisements in the 1992 presidential election.

Writing for the unanimous court, Senior Circuit Judge James Buckley found that "the revocation of the Church's tax-exempt status neither violated the Constitution nor exceeded the IRS's statutory authority."

The Branch Ministries v. Rossotti decision is a major blow to Religious Right efforts to prod churches into electioneering.

"This decision slams the door on mixing religion and partisan politics," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This is a staggering defeat for Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others who want to convert America's churches into a partisan political machine."

Americans United played a key role in the case.

The dispute began in 1992 when the Church at Pierce Creek took out full-page newspaper ads attacking then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton just days before the November election. Appearing in USA Today and The Washington Times, the ads claimed Clinton supported legal abortion, gay rights and condom distribution in the public schools.

Under a headline blaring "CHRISTIAN BEWARE," the church observed, "Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God's Laws ... The Bible warns us to not follow another man in his sin, nor help him promote sin -- lest God chasten us."

Adding to the legal implications of the church ad was a line at the bottom of the page that said, "Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted."

Americans United immediately sprang into action. In a Nov. 3 letter to the IRS, AU complained that church's electioneering clearly violated federal tax law and IRS rules barring partisan intervention by tax-exempt groups. "The advertisement presents a gross violation that the IRS cannot ignore lest the regulations become a mockery," observed AU Legal Director Steve Green.

According to court records, the IRS quickly took action. On Nov. 20, tax agents notified the congregation that a church tax inquiry was being undertaken. After a lengthy investigation, the federal agency sent the church a letter on Jan. 19, 1995, announcing that its tax exemption had been revoked.

But it soon became apparent that the Church at Pierce Creek -- a fundamentalist flock with only about 50 families -- is no ordinary congregation. The church is led by the Rev. Daniel J. Little, a religious leader best known as the mentor of Religious Right radical Randall Terry of Operation Rescue notoriety. (The two have since parted ways, and Terry has been ejected from the congregation in a dispute over alleged "sinful" relationships with women.)

Little has a cavalier attitude toward the government. In a 1995 TV interview, he said the church didn't seek legal advice before placing the election ads. "Why should we consult attorneys?" he asked. "We have the word of God.... Principle sometimes takes precedent over silly laws. …