Falwell Endorsement of Bush Prompts Challenge of Tax-Exempt Status

Jerry Falwell (left) with Rick Warren at a “Purpose Driven” conference last fall at Liberty University. (Baptist Press)
A church-state watchdog group reported Jerry Falwell to the Internal Revenue Service, saying the influential Southern Baptist pastor broke the law by using his tax-exempt organization to endorse President Bush for re-election.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, wrote an IRS official Thursday requesting an investigation into whether Falwell violated IRS code governing partisan political involvement by non-profits.


Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., sent a "Falwell Confidential" e-mail July 1 urging supporters to vote for Bush and contribute to a political action committee that supports the president and other Republicans.


"For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush," the memo said. "The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable."


Falwell went on to say that voting for Bush "may not be enough" and urged readers to also send a financial gift to the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee led by Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate who served eight years in the Reagan administration.


"Falwell is using his ministry to urge the election of George W. Bush and other candidates and to implore supporters to make contributions to a PAC whose purpose is to secure the election of Bush and other candidates," Lynn wrote in his complaint to the IRS. "I believe this intervention is a political campaign on behalf of a candidate in clear violation of federal tax law. I urge you to take appropriate action to correct this abuse of law."


Charities, educational organizations and religious organizations, including churches, are exempt from paying taxes under section 501(c)(3) in the IRS code. They are forbidden, however, from participating or intervening in any political campaign or for or against any candidate.


Churches may not endorse candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund-raising, make statements or become involved in other activities that "may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate," according to an election-year advisory from the IRS in April.


Even churches that use non-partisan criteria to encourage people to vote one way or another violate the code, according to the IRS. Churches may sponsor debates or forums to education voters, for example, but if the event shows a preference for or against a particular candidate, it is a violation.


Whether or not a church violates the tax code "depends on the facts and circumstances of each case."


Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, said he was speaking for himself and not the ministry and defended a pastor's right to endorse a candidate in his personal capacity.


"I support President Bush," he told The New York Times. "I support him on Sunday mornings from the pulpit where it doesn't cost the church or anybody anything. I make it very clear, just like most African-American churches and many liberal churches, that as a tax-paying citizen I vote. And I tell people who I vote for."


Falwell also told the newspaper that an affiliated lobbying organization paid for the e-mail, and not his religious organization.


"Nowhere in this message is there any indication that this is Falwell's personal view," Lynn noted in his IRS complaint. "In fact, it was sent under the auspices of Jerry Falwell Ministries, as a Web link at the bottom of the message indicates. The 'Falwell Confidential' in question was also posted on the Jerry Falwell Ministries Web site."


"Falwell is thumbing his nose at the IRS," Lynn said in a news release. "He must not be permitted to use a tax-exempt ministry to engage in partisan politics. The vast majority of America's religious institutions play by the rules. He should to."


Also on Thursday, Religion News Service quoted IRS officials saying that handing over church membership rolls to a political campaign could violate federal regulations.


The Bush-Cheney campaign recently urged church-going volunteers to turn over membership lists of congregations likely to be Bush-friendly.


A church directory landing in the hands of a political campaign "would certainly raise some red flags," Joseph Urban, a manager in the IRS tax-exempt division told RNS.


IRS regulations forbid non-profit organizations from giving a mailing list to a partisan political campaign unless the campaign pays for it, Urban said, adding that a church membership roll counts as a mailing list.


Such lists must be sold at fair-market value and made available to all candidates. IRS guidelines say, "To ensure the list is equally available to all candidates, a [non-profit] organization should inform the candidates of the availability of the list," according to RNS.


A moderate Baptist ethicist decried a trend toward politicizing churches.


"Falwell and other religious right leaders sadly suffer from moral dyslexia, reading Grand Old Party as God's Only Party," said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "They assign a secular political agenda to the biblical agenda, instead of allowing the biblical agenda to critique a secular political agenda. They've got the order reversed. Consequently, they lose their prophetic witness to political power and trivialize real faith."


"Make no mistake. Real faith belongs in politics, critiquing ideologies, campaigning for justice, caring for the weakest members of society, calling for the better angels within human beings," Parham said. "Real faith leaders remind people of faith that parties are neither perfectly moral nor completely immoral."


Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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