Pete Winn | Senior Staff Writer | Thursday, January 3, 2008
And while such actions are sometimes controversial, IRS rules allow candidates to speak in churches within certain guidelines.
New York Sen. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, both spoke in Iowa churches on Sunday - part of their last-minute appeal for votes.
She made what amounted to a softened-down version of her stump speech at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines Sunday, beginning her short talk with a declaration from Scripture - "This is the day the Lord has made."
Accompanied by Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Clinton arrived at the church a half-hour late, and left before the actual sermon began, according to the Rev. Lee Maxey, the church's senior pastor.
"She is a candidate for the office of president who wished to address the people of God at Corinthian Baptist Church, and she was given the opportunity to do that," Maxey told Cybercast News Service. "I think the congregation, for the most part, appreciated her presence."
Maxey said he didn't invite Clinton to the church, which had been visited a few weeks earlier by Clinton's primary opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
"They came to me. I was approached, and after some discussion she decided to come," Maxey said. "I think it was appropriate given where she is in the campaign. I was more concerned about the fact that she respected that this was a service of worship of God. I think she did that."
Maxey was careful not to say whether he agreed with either Sens. Clinton or Obama in terms of their positions on issues and wouldn't pass judgment on their views or theology.
"I appreciate the fact that they are both Christians," Maxey said. "One is United Methodist, and one is United Church of Christ. We're all trying to serve the same Lord. Who could argue with that?"
Maxey, a Democrat who is part of the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, also refused to say whether he would allow a Republican candidate to speak from his pulpit, but he said none had asked.
"I have not been approached by any Republican candidate, and none showed up at the Brown and Black Forum - and they were invited," he said.
IRS regulations 'muzzle pastors'
Pulpit appearances by political candidates are increasingly commonplace in presidential politics. Besides the Clintons, Obama and former Gov. Mike Huckabee - an ordained Southern Baptist preacher and Republican candidate - have spoken several times in churches, especially in Iowa.
Are such appearances legal? Even strict separationists say yes, though Americans United for Separation of Church and State spokesman Rob Boston said his group cautions against it.
"The IRS doesn't say that all candidate appearances in churches are a problem," Boston said. "In fact, they list a number of instances where that is permissible. Candidates are not supposed to show up and ask for votes. They are not supposed to be endorsed by the pastor. They are not supposed to collect money for the campaign. But they can appear."
Boston said there have been instances where candidate appearances take on the form of a political rally, and his group has asked the IRS to look into situations in years past where churches may have placed their tax-exempt status in question.
"In the 2004 race, there were a couple of instances involving Democratic candidates in black churches, where you really had a feeling that it was like a campaign rally," Boston said. "An entire slate of candidates appeared together, and it just didn't look right."
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said most candidates don't run afoul of the IRS regulations when speaking in churches and synagogues.
"The church can not endorse a candidate for public office, but there is nothing wrong with a candidate talking about who they are, what they believe, and what they think is best for the country," Sekulow said.
But IRS regulations do put a muzzle on pastors, and the law is used as a brick-bat against churches to make politics off-limits, according to Rep. Walter Jones (D-N.C.).
A case in point: All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., became the target of an IRS investigation in 2004 when a visiting priest preached a sermon about the political views of George Bush and John Kerry and framed it in terms of a debate with Jesus.
"To me, that is an example where the preacher or the priest are speaking what they believe the Bible teaches and therefore are not talking politics but giving a sermon on what they think is a policy issue," Jones told Cybercast News Service. "That ought to be protected."
Though the church was let off with what amounts to a warning, he said, other churches have lost their tax-exempt status. That's why Jones has introduced a bill in three different Congresses to allow tax-exempt organizations to participate in political campaigns, or support or oppose candidates for public office.
The latest version, H.R. 2275, would repeal the 1954 amendment to the tax code which bars churches and nonprofits from "intervening" in political campaigns.
Attorney Seamus Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the 1954 law was pushed through in a late-night move by then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.
"He wasn't focused on what was said from the pulpit to one's own congregation," Hasson said. "In fact, he wasn't focused on churches at all. He was focused on the fact that a charity in Texas had taken a swing at him in an election campaign and he wanted to punish them for it."
Hasson doesn't think the Johnson amendment is lawful or constitutional.
"When the IRS issued its regulations, it stretched out its tent pegs to include not only the church as an institution speaking to society at large about political things - i.e., the church intervening in a political campaign - but also pastors speaking from their own pulpits to their own congregations," Hasson said. "That isn't the institutional church speaking to anyone."
Hasson said from the American Revolution until 1954, tax exemptions for churches (and synagogues, temples and mosques) were a given - and so was political preaching.
"Nobody would have dreamed that you could only keep your tax exemption if you forsook your right to speak, or you could only speak on public issues if you forsook your tax exemption," he said.
A long-awaited legal challenge to the 1954 law is in the wings. Sources close to the Becket Fund say the group is days away from filing a court action to overturn the IRS regulations.
Jones, meanwhile, said his bill has gained some support among the majority Democrats in Congress, and he plans to try to move the bill when Congress returns.
"The Church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state," he said, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool," said Jones. "If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority."
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