Churches Risk Tax Standing by Becoming Too Political

Article excerpt

AS conservative Christian churches become more politically active, some are walking an increasingly fine line with a powerful federal agency.

Last year, for the first time, the US Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status of a church for its foray into politics. The alleged sin: The church bought a full-page ad in USA Today in 1992 against then-presidential-candidate Bill Clinton.

Now the same religious watchdog group that reported that first church to the IRS is going after another one - Second Baptist Church of Houston, one of the largest conservative Christian churches in the country. The Washington-based group Americans United For Separation of Church and State charges a group in the Houston church with openly partisan political activity, in violation of the IRS's rules governing tax-exempt organizations. Second Baptist Church acknowledges that an instance of partisan politicking took place recently in a church meeting room, but says it was the unauthorized action of one church member. Critics of Americans United, meanwhile, are crying bias. African-American pastors, who are typically liberal, have been openly endorsing political candidates from the pulpit for decades, virtually without sanction, they say. Growing challenges to churches' political activities highlight the legal gray area in which churches operate. They have also set off debate among legal activists. Some charge the IRS code is unconstitutional on grounds it squelches freedom of religious speech. Others say this is about separation of church and state and they want to see laws governing all tax-exempt groups under IRS Code 501(c)(3) enforced. Since 1954, the code has forbidden partisan politicking by such groups. The debate has caught the attention of two members of the US House of Representatives. Reps. Phil Crane of Illinois, a white conservative Republican, and Charles Rangel of New York, a black liberal Democrat, have introduced a bill that would allow churches to spend some of their revenues to support political candidates. Though the bill is not likely to be acted on, it reflects the depth of feeling in some circles about the issue. In Houston, officials at the Second Baptist Church say the IRS has not contacted them. But Americans United's campaign is having an impact. "There is no doubt that this will have a chilling effect on the legitimate political activities of churches," says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission. Churches do have a legal right to play a nonpartisan role in politics, and many spell out dos and don'ts in memos to their members. Churches may, for example, distribute voter guides put out by activist groups like the Christian Coalition, which compare candidates' positions on a range of issues. Churches are also free to take positions on public-policy issues, such as abortion, and to instruct members in how to become more involved politically by voting, becoming delegates to political conventions, and running for office. …