Church Service or Campaign Commercial? Partisan Production at Southern Baptist Congregation in Arkansas Raises Federal Tax Law Questions

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Church Service or Campaign Commercial? Partisan Production at Southern Baptist Congregation in Arkansas Raises Federal Tax Law Questions


Boston, Rob, Church & State


To Pastor Ronnie Floyd, the differences between President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry couldn't be any starker.

"I believe this will be one of the most critical elections in U.S. history," Floyd told the congregation at his 13,000-member, Southern Baptist mega-church in Springdale, Ark., July 4. "Rarely have we seen two candidates so diametrically opposed in their convictions."

As a huge, flattering portrait of Bush and a much smaller one of Kerry filled the stage of his First Baptist Church, Floyd went on to say, "One candidate believes that the United States is at war with terrorism. The other believes we're not at war at all, but in a lawsuit. One candidate believes in the sanctity of an unborn life, signing legislation banning partial-birth abortion and declaring that human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. The other believes in abortion on demand, voting six times in the United States Senate against the ban and insisting there is no such thing as a partial birth."

Floyd wasn't done yet.

"One candidate," he said, "believes that marriage is a God-ordained institution between one man and one woman and has proposed a constitutional amendment protecting marriage. The other was one of only 14 U.S. senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. One candidate publicly and unashamedly confesses faith in Christ and acknowledges that, 'My faith helps me in the service to people.' The other encourages private belief and argues that religious beliefs need not influence his decisions as a public official."

Earlier in the nationally televised sermon, Floyd had several times mentioned Bush favorably. He had also bemoaned the failure of evangelicals to support the president in sufficient numbers in 2000.

"In the presidential election of 2000, a Barna Research poll observed that 57 percent of the evangelical vote went to George W. Bush, while 42 percent went to Al Gore ...," Floyd told the crowd. "According to the polls, conservative Protestant turnout dropped from 19 percent of the vote in 1996 to 15 percent in the year 2000. In the 2000 election, President Bush received among evangelicals about 4 million fewer votes than Bob Dole received in 1996. Amazingly, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by a margin of only 537 votes [in Florida] ."

What was Floyd's message that Sunday morning? It was obvious: Vote for Bush.

Floyd's pulpit politicking caught the attention of some people in the area, and it didn't sit well with all of them. Eventually, It reached a reporter with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. At her request, staffers at Americans United viewed the sermon, which had been posted on the church's website.

To AU, it was an open-and-shut case.

"Pastor Floyd's presentation seemed more like a Bush campaign commercial than a church service," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "His sermon was clearly intervention in the campaign on behalf of Bush."

The Internal Revenue Code states that tax-exempt organizations that hold 501(c)(3) status, which includes houses of worship, may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Americans United, which since 1996 has run a special program designed to respond to church-based partisan politicking called "Project Fair Play," didn't waste any time reacting to Floyd's violation of the tax laws.

In a July 20 letter to the Internal Revenue Service, Lynn argued that Floyd's sermon, which was broadcast nationwide via television, was clearly intended to motivate voters to support Bush by portraying him in a positive light while disparaging Democratic contender Kerry.

Lynn noted that Floyd's bias in favor of Bush was evident throughout the sermon and was even reflected in the choice of visuals. Floyd also described Bush as a committed Christian who lets his religious beliefs influence his policy decisions while characterizing Kerry as keeping his faith private. …

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