Careless Counsel: Falwell legal group offers bad advice on churches and politics
As election season heats up, we’re sure to see an increase in the number of houses of worship intervening in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates.
Churches are tax-exempt nonprofits, and most pastors know this is illegal and inappropriate. But a small percentage – often prodded and provoked by Religious Right legal groups – is determined to violate federal tax law and drag partisanship into the pulpit.
In their quest to politicize America’s churches, Religious Right groups don’t hesitate to simply make things up. Consider the Liberty Counsel, a group affiliated with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University.
The group recently issued a press release quoting Mat Staver, its founder and chairman, who stated, “Pastors and churches have a lot of freedom to address Biblical and moral issues, to educate people about the candidates, and to encourage people to vote. Not one church has ever lost its tax-exemption for endorsing or opposing candidates or for supporting or opposing local, state or federal laws.”
There’s an amazing amount of misinformation and misdirection crammed into just those two sentences.
First off, no one really disputes the right of pastors to discuss issues – biblical or otherwise – from the pulpit. Pastors do this all of the time. It’s not the problem. Staver brings it up to mislead people and to create the impression that some nefarious force is trying to prevent churches from addressing issues.
What churches can’t do is intervene in campaigns between individuals seeking public office. They may not endorse or oppose candidates. If their efforts to “educate people about the candidates” take the form of telling people who to vote for or against, they are in violation of the law.
Staver’s claim that no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for political intervention is a flat-out lie. As Staver well knows, the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., was stripped of its tax-exempt status after it ran newspaper ads telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992.
TV preacher Pat Robertson’s legal outfit sued the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of the church to challenge the revocation – and lost.
I’m sure Staver also knows that Jerry Falwell, the man who founded Liberty University, once ran a tax-exempt TV ministry called the Old-Time Gospel Hour, which lost its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 after a four-year IRS audit determined that the ministry had diverted money to a political action committee. The ministry agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 for those years and to change its organizational structure so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.
Of course, none of these facts matter to Staver and the Liberty gang. Liberty University, which is itself tax exempt, has meddled in partisan elections several times. In 2007, Falwell Jr. used the school’s e-mail system to endorse Mike Huckabee for president, and in 2010 he used the school-run newspaper to intervene in a Virginia House of Delegates race and unseat an incumbent he disliked.
At the end of the day, Staver and his acolytes are interested in one thing only – getting certain people elected to public office. They have no problem advising churches to circumvent the law because they have adopted a philosophy of the ends justifies the means (which doesn’t come from the Bible, by the way).
For all of his talk about “values,” there’s a reek of immorality around Staver’s bum advice. That’s why most pastors are smart to keep it at arm’s length. Those reckless enough to sign up with Staver may find that the IRS takes a different perspective on this question.
As recently as June, officials with the federal tax agency warned pastors that they must avoid “direct and indirect support for a candidate in an election”
To learn more about this issue, visit Americans United’s Project Fair Play website. And if you encounter any pastors who are foolish enough to listen to Staver and engage in church electioneering, send the information to Americans United. We’ll be glad to alert the IRS.