Federal court ruling raises concern about a chill on advocacy advertising
For the first time, a federal judge has stripped a church of tax-exempt status for attacking a political candidate in newspaper advertisements.
Some fear the March 30 decision by U.S. district judge Paul Friedman in Washington, D.C., could harm sales of newspaper advocacy ads.
But legal groups on both sides say the immediate impact of the decision appears to be limited because it concerns ads that support or oppose political candidates.
There certainly would be a far bigger impact on ad sales if future court decisions were to go further and limit the right of tax-exempt organizations to buy issue-orientated ads, such as those supporting or opposing hot-button topics like abortion and gay rights.
Judge Friedman's ruling concerns ads that ran on Oct. 30, 1992, just before the presidential election that year. The judge stripped the tax- exempt status of The Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y. According to a church lawyer, the church paid a total of $30,000 for two similar ads, one in the Times and the other in USA TODAY. The ads declare "Christian Beware" and "Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God's laws."
"How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?" asks the ad, which states it was co-sponsored by churches and concerned Christians nationwide. The ad concludes, "Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted. Make donation to: The Church at Pierce Creek."
Other religions with tax-exempt status that buy newspaper ads routinely focus on non-political issues. Mike McGrath, who manages advocacy ads as assistant national ad manager at The Washington Times, says, "I've had dozens on everything from religious persecution in China to abstinence to same-sex marriages, to name just a few.
The Church of Scientology, for example, buys newspaper issue ads that don't support or oppose political candidates. Scientology's disputed tax-exempt status was finally affirmed in a 1993 court decision.
Sharyn Runyon, Scientology's East Coast director of public relations, says its newspaper ads help sell books and publicize activities. Scientology makes national ad buys; in addition, its local branches make buys in local newspapers around the country, with ads running somewhere virtually every week. One indication of the effectiveness of its newspaper ads, which provide a Web address, is the 93,000 requests for information received by the Web site over the last four months, says Runyon. …