Buckeye Backlash: Ohio Clergy Ask IRS to Derail Religious Right's Church-Based Political Machine
Leaming, Jeremy, Church & State
The more he heard and read about the involvement of two central Ohio pastors in the state's 2006 political campaigns, the more the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor of a Columbus church, became concerned over meddling by influential religious leaders in politics.
Since early last year, national and statewide media have noted the efforts of evangelical pastors Russell Johnson and Rod Parsley to rally like-minded religious leaders throughout the state to elect as governor Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, an avid supporter of the Religious Right agenda.
"All of the public activities of both groups have highlighted one candidate," Williams told Church & State. "There is a clear pattern of electioneering activities that are greatly compelling and raising our concerns that these churches are not behaving as churches."
Ohio and national media have reported that Johnson and Parsley are staunchly behind Blackwell, a vehement supporter of a successful 2004 ballot initiative to amend Ohio's Constitution to ban gay marriage and a long-time supporter of laws restricting reproductive rights. (See "Armageddon in Ohio," Church & State, June 2005.)
Williams' concern regarding the pastors' activities on behalf of Blackwell spurred his involvement in the filing of a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service.
In a 14-page complaint to the IRS, Williams and 30 other religious leaders accused Johnson and Parsley of inappropriately intervening in the gubernatorial campaign on behalf of Blackwell and said their actions should prompt an investigation into whether their churches' tax-exempt statuses should be revoked.
"Over the past two years," the Jan. 15 complaint states, "the foregoing entities (collectively, the 'Churches') have sponsored, hosted and funded a variety of activities that appear to be designed to promote one particular political party and one specific candidate for statewide office.
"The activity [of Johnson and Parsley] rises to the level of three types of tax law violations," the complaint continues "(i) endorsing a gubernatorial candidate at Church events, (ii) conducting voter registration drives designed to promote one party and a specific candidate; and (iii) coordinating and funding the distribution of biased voter education guides."
The group, led by Williams of the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, includes rabbis and Christian leaders of an array of denominations including, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran.
Their complaint to the IRS details the actions of Johnson and Parsley through their respective churches and affiliated entities. The complaint notes that time and again the pastors have promoted Blackwell's campaign for governor. Blackwell is facing State Attorney General Jim Petro, and according to the complaint, Petro has never been included in events sponsored by Johnson and Parsley.
Johnson and Parsley are also using their houses of worship and affiliated groups to conduct voter registration campaigns and distribute "biased voter 'education' materials to solidity support for Blackwell," states the religious leaders' IRS complaint.
In a Jan. 22 editorial by the Akron Beacon Journal, titled "Their one and only," Johnson and Parsley are blasted for using their churches and affiliates that "feature one candidate in the race for Ohio governor, J. Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state."
The editorial also criticized Blackwell for being "too willing to ride the religious wave to the governor's office."
Williams, in an interview with Church & State, said that he had become particularly concerned about the political rhetoric employed by Johnson and Parsley during the 2004 general elections. Those concerns, he said, have heightened with the pastors' efforts in the new campaign season.
Williams added that he appreciates the role houses of worship can play in public policy debates especially around issues. …