Group Wants Churches Investigated After Election

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - A group that opposes interaction between religion and government has accused four churches of violating restrictions on electioneering leading up to last week's midterm elections and asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate.

Tax law prohibits most houses of worship from endorsing candidates for election because of the tax-exempt non-profit status churches enjoy. The restrictions apply to all tax-exempt non-profit groups, not just churches.

According to Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, at least four churches violated that restriction in the 2006 election cycle.

Americans United accused two churches - one in Sioux City, Iowa and another in Hot Springs, Ark. - of supporting Republicans candidates. It also alleged that two Maryland churches illegally supported Democratic candidates.

The Sioux City Baptist Church in Iowa violated its non-profit status by handing out voter guides that were "clearly stacked to favor Republican hopefuls," Lynn charged.

Religious groups are permitted to distribute voter guides, but the guides must meet certain standards of non-partisanship. Americans United has long been critical of voter guides created and distributed by groups like the Christian Coalition. However, courts have upheld their guides as being within the limits.

Lynn accused the Lakeview Assembly of God in Hot Springs, Ark., of violating its tax-exempt status by hosting Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson without including the Democratic nominee, Mike Beebe. Hutchinson, a former U.S. congressman and administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency, lost to Beebe.

Americans United accused Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Md., of a similar violation for hosting a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley without including Republican incumbent Robert Ehrlich. O'Malley defeated Ehrlich.

The pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., allegedly attacked Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Steele from the pulpit on the Sunday before the election as Steele's opponent, U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, sat in the congregation. Cardin went on to beat Steele.

"Unfortunately, some churches allow candidate endorsements from the pulpit, distribute biased voter guides and host partisan rallies," Lynn said in a release. "Such blatant electioneering by tax-exempt churches flouts federal law and threatens the integrity of religion."

Priscilla Strother, an assistant to the pastor of Lakeview Assembly of God, told Cybercast News Service that the event with Asa Hutchinson was "not a political rally."

She said the church had invited Beebe to address church membership, but "he would not tell us yes or no."

Rev. Delman Coatest, pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church, told Cybercast News Service that he supports federal tax laws prohibiting electioneering and disputed the charges leveled by Americans United.

"At no time have I or the church endorsed or opposed a candidate for public office, nor has the church used its resources for partisan campaigning," he said, adding that when the IRS considers his sermon in context, "they'll find that to be the case."

Calls placed to Sioux City Baptist Church and Bethel AME were unanswered.

In 2004, the IRS investigated more than 100 non-profit groups accused of violating their tax-exempt status through improper involvement in campaigns. In 58 cases, the IRS Political Activity Compliance Initiative (PACI) determined that prohibited activities had occurred, but it only proposed revocation of tax-exempt status in three cases.

In the other 55 cases, the IRS issued written warnings to the organizations informing them of the violation. According to the PACI report, written advisories were used in cases that appeared to be one-time and isolated violations.

Of the cases that were determined to include improper activity, nine were related to voter guides, 12 focused on pastors who endorsed or opposed a candidate from the pulpit, and nine involved churches that allowed one candidate to appear at a church function without including his or her opponent.

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