When news broke in June that the IRS had deemed the
Christian Coalition too partisan to enjoy the privilege of tax-exemption, a chorus of
newspaper editorials cheered in harmony.
"There is nothing wrong if a group of people choose to believe that the Republican
Party is the party of God and to attempt to affect the outcome of elections on that
basis," the Tulsa World asserted. "But there is something very wrong with doing
it in a dishonest manner, under the guise of a nonprofit, tax-exempt religious
group." Declared the Sarasota Herald Tribune: "The decision is welcome and, we
hope, will prompt reviews of other organizations that appear to distort the intention of
laws designed to help non-profits."
Since 1954, all tax-exempt groups have been prohibited by federal statute from engaging
in partisan politics. Tax-exempt religious organizations may comment on political issues
but must refrain altogether from endorsing or raising money for candidates or any
political party. At times, however, that apparently clear line has become blurry and
problematic. Since its creation in 1989, the Christian Coalition has enlisted local
churches to distribute voter-education guides that grade candidates according to their
positions on particular domestic issues. With some justice, critics say the guides stack
the deck in favor of Republicans-skewing the formulation of issue positions so as to
systematically favor GOP candidates. In its 10-year bid for tax-exempt status, the
Coalition nonetheless persevered in arguing that it had no preference for either party.
Sensitivity to the principle of church-state separation has generally made the IRS
reluctant to intervene when third parties allege political improprieties on the part of
religious institutions. But the Christian Coalition case and another involving a local
churchs public attacks on Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign proved
impossible to ignore. Decisions this year in both cases triggered national coverage and a
flurry of media opinion on an issue that has rarely been discussed in the press.
Perhaps because of a sense that electoral politics has been the Christian
Coalitions main business, newspapers did not protest the IRSs refusal to grant
it tax-exempt status. To the contrary, the editorials began with the same premise,
enunciated this way by the Boston Globe: "Religious groups have as much right as any
organization to engage in political activity. But they shouldnt expect their
partisan campaign work to be subsidized by the taxpayers." But since the Coalition
had decided to reorganize itself with a tax-exempt wing as well as a political action
committee, the IRS, said the Globe, "should remain vigilant."
Some editorials looked beyond the Christian Coalition per se to larger issues of
religion in American political life. The Charleston (W.V.) Gazette denounced religious
conservatives en masse: "For decades, so-called religious right groups
have pretended theyre religious, not political. But in reality, theyre a
far-right appendage of the Republican Party....In fact, some of their goals are totally
political, without any discernible religious connection." For its part, the Seattle
Times cheered the IRS ruling as offering hope amid an insidiously rising tide of religion
in politics across the ideological spectrum. "Just as political factions of the
Christian right shrink or change focus, candidates of every stripe are misusing their
platforms as pulpits....Today, every national candidate, it seems, is talking about
God...[but] the canned effusions of spirituality sound hollow."
But not all newspapers have seen a vigilant IRS as the key to purer politics. Prior to
the Christian Coalition ruling, a strong contrary opinion held that the IRS had sullied
the political process by selectively enforcing the prohibition against political activity
by religious bodies.
That perspective came to the fore this Spring after a U.S. District Court upheld the
IRSs revocation of the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek, near
Binghamton, N.Y. The non-denominational Protestant church, which counts anti-abortion
activist Randall Terry as a member, in 1992 took out full-page advertisements in USA Today
and the Washington Times attacking then-candidate Bill Clinton. The ads were headlined,
"Christian Beware," and declared, "Bill Clinton is promoting policies that
are in rebellion to Gods laws."
Because the ads named the church as sponsor and solicited tax-deductible donations from
sympathetic underwriters, the IRS-prompted by a complaint from Americans United for
Separation of Church and State-investigated whether the church had violated its obligation
to remain politically non-partisan. After the revocation was handed down in 1995, the
outraged church took the agency to court. In March, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman
cited the same factors as the IRS in ruling that the IRS was "justified in revoking
the tax-exempt status."
Days after the judges decision came down, the Daily Oklahoman alleged that the
IRS was using a double standard, targeting conservative religious tax-exempts and turning
a blind eye toward liberal ones that break the same rules. In the 1998 election, liberal
churches "endorsed favored politicians by turning over their pulpits to them,"
the Oklahoman claimed. "Why hasnt that sparked IRS interest in their tax-exempt
status?... If the IRS is going to prohibit conservative churches from political activity,
it must apply the ban to liberal congregations as well. Better yet, the IRS should leave
all churches alone, free to speak with vigor and passion on important moral
The Cleveland Plain Dealer agreed: "[B]y pursuing some apparent offenders of these
rules, but not others, the IRS adds to a perception that begins with LBJs partisan
motives 45 years ago and is parlous close to reality today: a tilt in enforcement toward
conservative organizations, religious and otherwise. If there are to be rules, they should
be clear. If they are to be enforced, they should be enforced consistently. But its
time to rethink the reason for the rules at all."
"LBJs partisan motives" referred to the legislative history of the 1954
rule banning political partisanship by non-profits. According to an August 1998 story in
the Washington Times, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had pushed through the
rule to revenge himself on two conservative groups that had challenged his seat.
"Born of Lyndon Johnsons Texas politics, not the U.S. Constitution," the
rule, said the conservative Washington daily, was and always had been used to persecute
political enemies. In line with this point of view, the Times ran an article in November
pointing out that the IRS had failed to revoke the tax exemption of a Baltimore church
that had hosted Bill Clinton two days before the election.
After the Pierce Creek decision, the Indianapolis Star taxed the IRS with biased
enforcement of the rule in a local case: "It may be because of those [conservative]
political views that the IRS has chosen to make the [Indianapolis Baptist Temple]
something of a cause celebre" by auditing more than 50 church staff members in 1996.
Similarly, Frank Greve, a columnist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, charged, "They [at
the IRS] cant explain what seems like a raft of recent investigations of right-wing
groups." Among the targets Greve listed the Church at Pierce Creek, the Heritage
Foundation, the American Spectator Educational Foundation, the Freedom Alliance, and the
Western Journalism Center. All told, the IRS stood accused, along with its other sins, of
going after religious conservatives in a frightening trend toward political persecution.
To be sure, other newspapers saw the Pierce Creek ruling in an entirely different
light. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called for more vigorous enforcement of the rule.
Lamenting that the "ban on politicking by tax-exempt churches has been much skirted
over the years," the paper found it "refreshing that a federal judge has
stripped one church of its tax exemption for openly lobbying against the election of
President Clinton." Whether churches host liberal Democratic candidates or distribute
Christian Coalition voter guides, political parties unfairly become "beneficiaries of
pulpit politics." The 1954 rule is a good one that ensures fair elections, the paper
contended. The problem has lain in lackluster enforcement.
But among most supporters of the Pierce Creek ruling, the advisability of "pulpit
politics" did not arise. "Religious groups that want to engage in partisan
politics have every right to do so, but they must play by the same rules as everyone
else," declared the New York Times. "The church can engage in partisan campaign
activities, but it cannot ask taxpayers to subsidize those activities." The Salt Lake
Tribune was blunter: "If they want to run anti-Clinton ads during a campaign, they
can do so. Theyll just have to pay taxes too." Religious groups have "the
same freedom as everyone else to take out hard-hitting newspaper advertisements in an
effort to thwart a candidate for public office," said New Orleans Times-Picayune.
"They are also free to enjoy the tax-exempt status that comes with a single-minded
dedication to the Lords work. They just have to make a choice."
The issue is far from settled. The Church at Pierce Creek, now calling itself the
Landmark Church, has resolved to appeal Judge Friedmans decision. Americans United
for Separation of Church and State has asked the IRS for similar rulings in cases where
churches have hosted political candidates or distributed Christian Coalition voter guides.
The IRS is reportedly investigating both types of cases. And although no one can say
whether the normally taciturn IRS will act more often or more swiftly in the future, it is
clear that prescriptions from both editorial camps point to ramifications that neither
side has yet discussed.
Those who criticize the IRS for selective enforcement have proposed no alternative
beyond the Daily Oklahomans suggestion that the rule simply not be enforced. But
possibly excepting the Oklahoman, editorial pages on both sides of the issue agree that
those with tax-exempt privileges should not be free to involve themselves in partisan
politics. For most editorial writers, as for most of the rest of us, non-enforcement of
federal law is a non-option.
Meanwhile, supporters of the Pierce Creek and Christian Coalition rulings have
generally been content to encourage activist religious groups to pay taxes and take part
in partisan politics as they choose. Should those groups follow that advice, however,
American politics would take a turn unseen throughout most of this century. With rare
exception, such as Protestants organizing in 1928 and 1960 to oppose Roman Catholic
candidates for public office, religious organizations have been absent from partisan
politics since the 19th century. Yet on the eve of the 21st century,
an overtly religious group has plunged into fund raising and making endorsements for
specific candidates. What does this move by the Christian Coalition mean for American
politics and for religious lobbying? Newspapers have so far largely said no
comment, although two have tiptoed on the new ground.
[Because of an editors error, the published version of Religion in the News
mistakenly included a different version of the above paragraph and of the second paragraph
from the end.]
On one side, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot asserted, "Ironically, the
agencys ruling could be liberating for the Coalition, allowing it to come out of the
closet, so to speak. No longer will the group have to pretend that it doesnt endorse
candidates, and its clout may increase now that it can freely make campaign gifts."
On the other, Palm Beach Post columnist George McEvoy wrote that skeptics
"believe it was the religious aura that made the coalition strong in the first place,
especially among evangelical Christians. Now that it has to admit that it is an
out-and-out political pressure group, that appeal will be lost."
And if other religious interest groups follow the Coalition into open
politickingor are forced to do so by the IRSwhat then? A network of tax-paying
churches that funnels donations to certain candidates? Or openly lobbies Congress? God
Whatever the effectiveness of overt religious politics in the years to come, the hearty
stew that is American politics has a potent new ingredient. How the new stew will taste
remains uncertain, but one thing seems certain: It wont taste the same.