Politicizing the Pulpit: North Carolina Congressman, Religious Right Push Bill to Allow Church Electioneering

Article excerpt

Make County, N.C., Sheriff John H. Baker Jr. is a fixture in local politics who for 24 years has repeatedly turned back challengers who covet his job.

It helps that the 6-foot, 7-inch former pro football player is a considerable physical presence; it also helps that he has deep roots in the community. But when election time rolls around, Baker has another weapon at his disposal: dozens of local churches.

The Raleigh News & Observer reported Feb. 24 that Baker, a Democrat, visits 150 predominantly black churches every year. In election years, it's not unusual for pastors to take up special collections on his behalf. Members of the clergy routinely promote Baker's candidacy from the pulpit and allow him to address the congregation, seeking votes.

Speaking to congregants at St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in February, Baker was not shy about asking for support.

"I'm not going to say anything about John Baker the sheriff because you know me," he said. "When you start that evaluation process for political candidates, look at my record. If the record is good, vote for me."

Baker's church-based politicking may be a sure-fire vote getter, but it's not without its drawbacks. For starters, it's a violation of federal law for houses of worship to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. After being alerted to the activity by a county resident who wishes to remain anonymous, Americans United on Feb. 28 asked the Internal Revenue Service to look into the allegations that St. Matthew illegally raised money for Baker and endorsed his candidacy.

"This activity would seem to be a clear violation of the Internal Revenue Code, which forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns, issuing statements in favor of candidates and raising money for candidates," Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn wrote to Robert T. Miller, director of the IRS's Exempt Organizations Division.

The resident who brought the matter to AU's attention said rumors have circulated for years about Baker raising money in churches. The man, who said he found out about Americans United's interest in this issue by searching the web, told Church & State he was "astounded that the newspaper printed that much detail, because it lays the foundation for a complaint and investigation."

Continued the resident, "I am very interested and passionate about having fair elections in our country. When one candidate uses unfair tactics, it taints the outcome and leaves many voters apathetic about the process, which further erodes voter participation. The other related issue is that non-profit organizations do not report their contributions like PACs and candidates, which also provides a huge opportunity to cheat the process."

St. Matthew may face warnings, fines or even revocation of its tax-exempt status for its partisan activities. But if one member of the U.S. House of Representatives has his way, none of that will happen. Not only will St. Matthew's political activities be protected, they'll be encouraged.

Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican, wants to change federal tax law to remove the provisions barring houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Jones is sponsoring legislation, called the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357), that would alter the IRS Code to allow for partisan activities in America's houses of worship.

Jones, a four-term House member who represents parts of Greenville, Goldsboro and the Outer Banks, is upfront about his motives: He was angered over efforts by Americans United to oppose church-based partisan politicking. Specifically, Jones wants to end an Americans United effort called "Project Fair Play," which seeks to educate houses of worship about the rules governing electioneering. …