- March 31 - A federal court acted appropriately when it ruled that a New York
church that engaged in blatant partisan politicking deserved to have its tax
exemption revoked, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Americans United, a national watchdog group that filed the
original 1992 complaint against the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y.,
applauded the decision as a victory for church-state separation and common
"This decision is a major blow to TV preacher Pat Robertson
and other Religious Right leaders who have tried to politicize churches,"
said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.
"This landmark ruling sends a strong message that churches
must obey the prohibition on partisan politicking if they expect to remain tax
exempt," added Lynn. "From now on, houses of worship that consider
risking their tax exemption to get involved in electioneering had better realize
that it's a gamble they're likely to lose.
"We're going to continue to monitor these activities and
report offenders to the IRS until people realize that America's churches are not
to be manipulated for partisan political purposes," concluded Lynn.
The New York church jumped into partisan politics in late October
1992 by running full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington
Times urging people not to vote for then-presidential candidate Bill
Clinton. Headlined "Christian Beware," the ad faulted Clinton for
"promoting policies that are in rebellion to God's laws." The ads also
included an appeal for tax-deductible donations to defray the cost of placing
Americans United reported the incident to the Internal Revenue
Service, which conducted an investigation. In 1995, the federal agency revoked
the church's tax-exempt status, saying it had run afoul of tax law that forbids
non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing candidates.
The church received legal assistance from TV preacher Pat
Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, but Judge Paul Friedman
supported the action taken by the IRS in his ruling issued yesterday.
"The IRS clearly may revoke the tax-exempt status of any
organization that publishes an advertisement in opposition to a candidate for
public office," Friedman wrote in his decision.
Friedman went on to say that the Pierce Creek activities were the
most blatant on record, and that there was no evidence of any previous instance
"in which a church so brazenly claimed responsibility for a political
advertisement in a national newspaper and solicited tax-deductible donations for
that political advertisement."
Said AU's Lynn, "Pierce Creek had a simple choice: work as a
non-partisan, tax-exempt church or engage in partisan politicking and forfeit
its tax exemption. The church's leaders can't have their cake and eat it
Lynn also noted that this case, Branch Ministries v.
Rossotti, was not about the free speech rights of churches.
"Churches have every right to speak out on important issues
of the day, but that's not what was involved in this case," Lynn concluded.
"This is about an illegal effort by a church to oppose a candidate for
public office. If a church wants to be tax exempt, it has to be non-partisan.
That's the law. It's impossible to reasonably argue that taking out a full-page
political advertisement urging people to vote against a candidate is
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in
Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and
allied houses of worship in all 50 states.