Religious-liberty group: Ministers have right to preach on politics from pulpit

Friday, November 3, 2000

As some clergy prepare to discuss politics in church during this final
weekend before Election Day, a group advocating church-state separation is
warning religious leaders that actually endorsing any candidate “could get
churches in legal trouble.”

In an Oct. 17 news release, Americans United for Separation of Church
and State warned against outright endorsements and said it had sent a letter to
Vice President Al Gore protesting his exhortation of African-American pastors
to support his presidential drive.

According to the Oct. 15 New York
Gore took part in a conference call “to mobilize his
campaign's 'get out the vote' drive … by imploring black preachers to
push for his election from their pulpits.” The Times quoted Gore as telling the pastors, “I'm
asking you in your sermons to do the work of the Lord here on earth.”

“This is highly inappropriate, since it could put the tax-exempt
status of those churches at risk,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W.
Lynn wrote to Gore.

Americans United has also criticized the Christian Coalition for
supplying churches with “voter guides” that it says are thinly disguised
campaign propaganda favoring Texas Gov. George W. Bush's candidacy. The group
contends that distributing such literature also puts churches' tax exemptions
in danger.

But some religious-liberties advocates dispute the Americans United
claims, accusing the group of raising unwarranted fears that any political
discourse from the pulpit could summon the taxman.

“Try to imagine a church that doesn't preach about morality issues,”
said Anthony Picarello, legal counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket
Fund for Religious Liberty. “Is that conceivable? Can you ask a church to do
that just because a candidate might express some of the same views on that

But that is what Americans United wants religious leaders to believe,
Picarello said. He said the group's intent is to keep churches quiet about
issues in the election.

A spokesman for Americans United agreed that religious leaders have a
right to take political stands on issues such as abortion, health care and gay

“But there's a difference between speaking on a political issue and
distributing partisan political materials,” said Rob Boston of Americans

Boston said the sole intent of American United's letter to 285,000
churches against distributing the voter guides was to keep ministers and
religious leaders from involving themselves in a partisan effort to get
Republicans elected. He said that while the coalition can produce the guides,
it can't distribute them at churches without jeopardizing the churches'
tax-exempt status.

Reaction to his group's voter-guides letter from church leaders has
been mixed, Boston said, but mostly downright negative. “Some, quite frankly,
are so mean-spirited and rude,” Boston said. “I've found it hard to believe
they came from churches.”

But some experts say that's because the intent of the Americans United
letter was to discourage ministers from preaching about anything remotely
connected to politics.

The Becket Fund responded with its own letter telling houses of
worship that the First Amendment protects the rights of ministers “to preach
about anything at all … without the threat of fines or other government

“In our view, such penalties would represent both a grave offense to
the free expression of religious and political views, and an impermissible
government preference for politically docile religious groups over politically
outspoken ones,” wrote Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund, in a letter
posted on the group's Web site.

Picarello said that if the government penalized preachers for
political speech, then it would have fined abolitionist preacher Charles Finney
for advocating for the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King
Jr. for organizing civil rights marches in the 1960s. And he said it would
sanction African-American preachers if they responded to Gore's request to pray
for his election.

Most religious groups agree that federal tax and election laws forbid
churches from endorsing candidates. Even the Christian Coalition's Web site
specifically instructs pastors and their churches to refrain from endorsing
candidates and distributing materials that clearly favor one candidate or
political party.

Still, Picarello said the IRS and the Federal Election Commission have
only pursued the most egregious cases of church endorsements, such as in
Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, a
lawsuit decided earlier this year by the U.S. District Court for the District
of Columbia. In that case, a church was sanctioned after it placed ads in
The Washington Post in opposition of a candidate, then
asked for donations to recoup the costs of the ad.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law professor who specializes
in freedom-of-religion issues, agreed that government agencies have refrained
from trying to stop preachers politicizing from the pulpit. He said that
because the government has never pursued such an incident it means there isn't
a guiding court case on this issue.

“We don't have that definitive case because the [IRS] is not willing
to file that case,” Laycock said. “No one wants to file that case. And they are
unwilling because of the potential political backlash it would raise, and they
are unwilling because of First Amendment problems.”

Tags: ,