Churches Must Avoid 'Partisan Politicking,' Group Warns

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:31 PM EDT

( - A religious watchdog group on Monday announced a campaign to warn congregations that taking part in "a church-based political machine" created by leaders of the Religious Right during mid-term elections this November could endanger their tax-exempt status.

"Dragging churches into partisan politics is just plain wrong," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU). "It violates tax law, it damages the integrity of religion, and it harms our democracy."

Lynn stated that the Washington, D.C.-based organization will mail more than 117,000 copies of a letter reminding church leaders in 11 states that taking part in "partisan politicking" is a violation of the Internal Revenue Service Code.

The letters are being sent to congregations in Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, where Lynn said prominent conservatives -- including James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family (FOF) -- are trying to "build a church-based political machine."

"Dobson and other Religious Right leaders want to politicize America's pulpits," Lynn continued. "I urge religious leaders not to go along with it. Houses of worship that get drawn into Dobson's political machine could emerge with their tax-exempt status severely mangled."

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, Lynn last month criticized FOF's efforts to encourage pastors to speak on political issues and create voter guides leading up to the November elections as having "all the trappings of a political machine."

On Monday, Lynn charged that Dobson is increasingly acting as a Republican political operative. Lynn backed up his claim by noting that Dobson communicates regularly with GOP congressional leaders and White House staff, he endorses GOP candidates, and he takes credit for the defeat of former U.S. Sen. and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Religious leaders need to be especially wary of the voter guides that will be produced by FOF affiliates, Lynn said, since the IRS has warned churches about distributing voter guides produced by outside groups.

The FOF guides are almost certain to be partisan material that seeks to portray Dobson's preferred candidates in a favorable light while disparaging their opponents, he stated.

"Biased voter guides have no place in houses of worship, period," Lynn declared.

In clear cases of violations of federal tax law, he said, AU would not hesitate to ask the IRS to intervene.

"There are right ways and wrong ways for churches to get involved in public affairs," Joe Conn, a spokesman for AU, told Cybercast News Service.

"We have no objection if churches speak out for or against abortion, for or against gun control, for or against the war, and all that's perfectly legal and perfectly within their constitutional rights," Conn said. "But if they say, 'Vote against Sam Jones for Congress,' then they're violating their tax status.

"It's a matter of the IRS saying, 'Look, we've got different categories. If you want to be a political action committee, fine, but don't file as a tax-exempt organization like a church or a charity or an educational group,' he stated.

"That's where the IRS draws the line, and we think it seems perfectly reasonable," Conn added.

"Our beef with Dr. Dobson's program is that it seems to be set up to steer people to vote for certain candidates," Conn continued.

"They've got these state affiliates, and in each county, you have a county coordinator, and then in each church, you've got a church coordinator that reports to the county coordinator, so it's set up like a political machine," he stated. "They're supposed to hand out voter guides that steer you toward the right candidates.

"To us, that's going way over the line," Conn added. "You're taking churches and turning them into political machines."

"Not at all," replied Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family. "It's perfectly legitimate to distribute the voter guides that we're involved with because they are non-partisan and have been thoroughly reviewed by our expert attorneys, whom we talk to almost constantly. So there's nothing inappropriate about it."

Minnery also told Cybercast News Service that "our voter guides contain all candidates' comments regarding issues important to families. We don't pick and choose among candidates we favor. That would not be appropriate.

"It's significant that Lynn was not able to produce one of those 'biased' voter guides," he noted, "even though many of the states have them up on their websites already," including Arkansas and Arizona.

"Lynn's comments are nothing new," Minnery concluded, dismissing them as "just more bullying tactics."

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