S. CAROLINA - January 24 - Americans United for Separation of Church and State has cautioned the top official of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that using his denominational news agency to oppose Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani raises federal tax law issues.
In a Jan. 24 letter, Americans United advised SBC President Frank Page that the Internal Revenue Code prohibits the use of tax-exempt resources to support or oppose candidates for public office.
Americans United acted after learning of a Jan. 21 analysis distributed by Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news agency. The analysis stated in part, “Page said he agrees with James Dobson of Focus on the Family that a united front against Giuliani is needed and that ‘evangelicals can realistically defeat him.’ Even a ticket with Giuliani on top and Huckabee for vice president ‘would be problematic for Dr. Dobson and myself,’ Page said.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, urged Page to review the requirements of tax law.
“Since you are the top official of the Southern Baptist Convention and Baptist Press is the denomination’s official news agency,” wrote Lynn, “Southern Baptists and other readers could easily get the impression that you are using the denomination’s tax-exempt resources to oppose Giuliani’s candidacy…. [W]e encourage you to review the provisions of the Internal Revenue Code and to refrain from activities that might endanger the tax-exempt status of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The Internal Revenue Code bars religious leaders serving in their official capacities from involvement in political campaigns. When church leaders use their pulpits, church newsletters or other official resources of their organizations to advocate or oppose candidates, federal tax law is violated.
In its letter, Americans United notes that the Baptist Press article identifies Page as SBC president and gives no indication that he is being interviewed as an individual citizen rather than as the top official of the Southern Baptist Convention. (The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.)
AU’s Lynn says he hopes Page and other religious leaders take the time to learn about the law.
“We should have learned by now that churches should not become political machines,” said Lynn. “If clergy are a little fuzzy on federal tax law, now is a good time to get sound information. With a presidential campaign underway, it’s especially important for everyone to play by the rules.”