Theology Thursdays: Partisan Preachers May Break Tax Code by Bruce Nolan
Dozens of New Orleans ministers speaking out to support or oppose Mayor Ray Nagin and his administration may be violating tax laws that ban their churches from partisan politics -- but practically speaking, there's almost no risk of penalty, according to several tax experts.
The chances that the IRS will strip a church of its exemption for illegal politicking are roughly comparable to someone getting hit by a meteor, said Richard Hammar, a lawyer and certified public accountant in Springfield, Mo., who publishes a tax guide for churches.
"The chances are almost nil," Hammar said. "So far as I know, there's been one church in the history of the United States that lost its tax exemption for political activity. And you have to put that in the context of a significant number of congregations that do in fact engage in political activity, and have for quite a long time."
Politics and the pulpit have been closely intertwined in metropolitan New Orleans for years, most recently among politically liberal African-Americans working for Democratic policies and conservative white evangelicals in support of Republicans.
That relationship is on conspicuous display again in New Orleans: A coalition of black preachers has emerged as fierce critics of Nagin and his economic policies toward disadvantaged black companies, and a smaller group of ministers spoke out last week to oppose their colleagues.
Tax code of behavior
As nonprofit organizations that provide society with valuable services, churches and their ministries are granted tax-exempt status by the federal government. Donations to them are tax-deductible as well. But to keep that status, they must follow Internal Revenue Service guidelines that forbid certain kinds of political activity.
Yet Americans seem to want the IRS not to interfere with churches, said Patrick O'Daniel, an Austin, Texas, tax lawyer who has written about churches, politics and the tax exemption.
O'Daniel and others noted that, for many communities, the pulpit is a rallying point for more than theological wisdom. "For some folks, church is the focal point of the community, the place where people come together, and there's a lot more going on there than just preaching in the pulpit," he said.
"If they had more manpower, maybe they'd patrol this area more vigorously," he said of IRS agents. "But this area comes very close to important First Amendment concerns, and it's not like it's going to generate more tax revenues anyway. And for some groups of people, this is a very sensitive area."
Under the tax code, churches and other nonprofits such as hospitals and charities "must not participate in, or intervene in, a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office," according to an IRS document that explains the code for the public, Publication 1828.
Individually, "religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions," the document says.
Personal stances permitted
Clergy can take partisan political positions outside church only if they make clear their actions "are personal and not undertaken as representatives of their religious organizations," according to a guide prepared by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
That means in part that pastors can preach about issues, but not for or against candidates, though the line dividing issues from the politicians who espouse them can be fuzzy, several experts said.
Bishop Paul Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church said he has preached from St. Stephen's pulpit against Nagin's policies, in particular Nagin's pre-election pledge to relinquish authority to award public professional contracts to an independent board, a vow he didn't honor.
Another Nagin foe, the Rev. Tom Watson of Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, said he told his congregation how disappointed he was that Nagin, a Democrat, endorsed Republican Bobby Jindal for governor.
"We dealt with the whole reality of us having a Republican governor again," Watson said. "My thing was that if we voted for Jindal, there was the (Gov. Mike) Foster regime that was going to keep control . . . .
"I spent at least 35 minutes on that."
Many unpunished violations
Morton and Watson said in a recent interview they believe they stayed on the right side of federal laws that forbid partisan politicking from the pulpit.
But it doesn't matter much, several experts said.
In a 2001 Boston College law review article, O'Daniel catalogued 18 examples "among many" of explicit pulpit politicking during the 2000 presidential campaign, including these:
-- Preaching at the Genoa Baptist Church in Ohio, the Rev. Jerry Falwell told the worshippers, "You vote for the Bush of your choice."
-- In Flint, Mich., Al Gore attended an evening service at New Jerusalem Full Baptist Church at which the speaker, Kenneth Edmonds, urged congregants to kneel at bedtime and pray: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not vote for George Bush."
Locally, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, asked hundreds of pastors around Louisiana to declare one Sunday "William Jefferson For Governor Day" and solicit donations from their congregations for his unsuccessful 1999 campaign.
Since 1996, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed 46 complaints of improper politicking against houses of worship or affiliated organizations, said Rob Boston, a spokesman for that group.
The one instance in which the IRS acted to strip a church of its tax exemption occurred when the Church at Pierce Creek, an evangelical church in Binghamton, N.Y., took out full-page newspaper ads just before the 1992 presidential election urging Bill Clinton's defeat.
Beyond that, the IRS has fined a group associated with Jimmy Swaggart $170,000, and another associated with Jerry Falwell $50,000 for political actions in the mid-1980s, but those were ministries affiliated with those preachers, not their churches.
"I guarantee you -- you watch -- a week before the election, candidates and their representatives will be fanning out to the most prominent pulpits across this country to talk about their candidate," O'Daniel said.
"That's the reality. Nothing's ever been done in the past, and I see nothing to make me think it's going to change now."
Bruce Nolan is a Times Picayune staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: This article first appeared at The Times Picayune
Thursday, April 15, 2004