Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it has written to “60,000″ clergy to remind them of their obligation under IRS rules not to engage in partisan politics. The letter is signed by Americans United’s executive director Barry Lynn. It says in part:
…houses of worship and other nonprofit entities classified under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office and may not intervene directly or indirectly in partisan campaigns.
Any activity designed to influence the outcome of a partisan election can be construed as intervention. If the IRS determines that your house of worship has engaged in unlawful intervention, it can revoke the institution’s tax-exempt status or levy significant fines on the house of worship or its leaders…
Some might term a non-government group (which I may never have heard of) cold-calling with such unsolicited “advice” and threatening possible IRS action against me, as constituting a form of “harassment.” (I know I would.) It could also be interpreted as a form of subtle (or not so subtle) “intimidation” meant to “chill” perfectly legal activities. (I know I would think so.) For example, the IRS does note that:
…voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner…
Yet this is how Americans United’s Rev Lynn “explains” that in his letter:
…I urge you to be especially wary of so-called “voter guides.” Such guides are often thinly veiled partisan materials. If the IRS finds that a violation has occurred, it may be the house of worship, not the organization that produced the guide, that is penalized…
The Roman Catholic church hierarchy does not endorse candidates or take part in partisan political campaigns. The Church is, however, as legally entitled as any other 501(c)(3) to offer non-partisan opinions on public policy matters. (Planned Parenthood of America is also a 501(c)(3).) It is well-known that the Church is, for example, supportive policy-wise of, say, efforts to abolish the death penalty (de facto, that is unavoidably mostly partisan Democratic), while it is simultaneously more comfortable with anti-abortion views (de facto, that puts it mostly among Republicans).
There are a myriad of other examples, because the Church is not a political party: its views insist on failing neatly to conform to either major party’s full policy wish list. However, Americans United has cited instances recently in which it argues individual parishes in Manhattan and El Paso, Texas, crossed the IRS line in electioneering openly against President Barack Obama. In the end, though, it is the IRS that decides whether what Americans United (or any other complaintant) argues has any validity.
Americans United asserts it “monitors” and “reports” clergy for tax exemption “violations” because it is a non-partisan group dedicated to preserving the Jeffersonian “wall of separation of church and state”. Yet in the current climate especially should not that sort of a group that is so free with its “advice” also maintain a broader view of faith-state relations? Including perhaps keeping a close eye on how the current administration could also quite possibly be introducing new stresses and as a consequence also be undermining “separation/establishment”? Pew Forum, September 20:
The United States was among the 16 countries whose scores on both the Government Restrictions Index and the Social Hostilities Index increased by one point or more in the year ending in mid-2010…
For should not seeking to protect true “separation of church and state” — “free exercise” as well as “establishment” in a Church of England sense — come before defending any administration’s policies? One would think so. However, based on what we have witnessed from Americans United since earlier this year, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that while separation of church from state is vital for this group, the equally important flip-side of separation of state from church is rather a lesser matter.
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This blog has addressed Catholics’ voting dilemma here, as well as the “religious liberty” issue, here, here, here, and here. Regular visitors know this blog has catalogued Americans United’s vocal public support for the Obama administration’s HHS “contraceptive mandate,” which was put forward on January 20, 2012. Yours truly has fisked some of the group’s posts here, here, here, and here.
Now, in addition, quotes appearing on Americans United’s web site since just April may prove instructive regarding the group’s “non-partisanship” and what yours truly, as a voter, would take away from reading them:
- “It is imperative that President Obama and Congress refuse to cave in to this outrageous assault on church-state separation.’” – Barry Lynn, Press Release, April 12, 2012.
I would consider that overt support by name for a partisan politician and his chosen policy course.
- “Must be some militia extremist or a Tea Party wingnut, right?” – Joseph L. Conn, April 18, 2012.
My reaction to that is Mr Conn has no use for the Tea Party, which is now closely aligned with the Republicans. Therefore, Mr Conn prefers the Democrats.
- “…the Obama administration simply must not cave in to it.” – Joseph L. Conn, June 21, 2012.
Again, I take that as Mr Conn telling me Americans United partisan-backs the Democratic president.
- “The Catholic bishops, aided and abetted by their pals in the Religious Right” – Rob Boston, July 13, 2012.
I know Americans United almost never applies the disparaging and “hot button” expression “Religious Right” to Democrats, so Mr Boston there is informing me he and his group oppose the Republicans.
- “It was great to hear Obama frame the issue this way.” – Rob Boston, July 13, 2012.
I would take away from that how partisan Democratic President Obama’s approach is being openly backed by Americans United. If in some doubt about that, reflect here also what would be Americans United’s likely reaction if a parish newsletter, or a “voter guide”, had included praise for Mitt Romney, by name, “that way”?
- “One of these days, we’ll drag the theocrats kicking and screaming into the modern world as well – or at least convince politicians to stop listening to them.” – Rob Boston, July 13, 2012.
I would interpret that as a partisan statement revealing Americans United plans to oppose Republican candidates it deems “theocrats” or too close to “the theocrats”, because based on Americans United’s evident working definition of a “theocrat”, “theocrats” are almost never Democrats.
- “…they may soon have a lot in common with Clint Eastwood – they’ll be ranting to empty chairs.” – Simon Brown, September 12, 2012.
Reading that attack on Mr Eastwood by name, and since I recall he spoke at the Republican National Convention, that would lead me to believe Americans United backs the opposing (Democratic) party’s partisan stance.
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So rather “on the line” at the very least and arguably “across it” all those? For those blurbs above would really not have been all that out of place in a Democratic candidate’s stump speech or in DNC literature. Meaning they sure read like “endorsing or opposing candidates for public office” and/ or intervening “directly or indirectly in partisan campaigns.”
And why is that worth bearing in mind? Because Americans United is also a “501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization.” And the IRS makes clear that 501(c)(3) groups are supposed to be “non-partisan,” which Americans United asserts it is.
Yet as we can see it is bursting with opinions. So taxpayers are essentially subsidizing that tax-exempt group’s partisanship and activities. Interestingly, though, in a September 19 blog post that touched on the responses Americans United says it has received to that letter, Rob Boston appears to claim proof of its “non-partisanship” is found in that:
…Liberal-leaning churches are not permitted to endorse Democrats any more than conservative congregations can endorse Republicans. AU has in the past reported churches from all over the political spectrum. Our letter was sent to houses of worship that are considered liberal as well as conservative.
Even if 100 percent true, it is decidedly unclear how that somehow excuses Americans United’s partisanship seen above. Indeed even if the Catholic Church is officially non-partisan, we are informed gravely by Americans United that so much as a solitary sentence in a parish newsletter is grounds for the IRS rescinding that parish’s 501(c)(3) tax exemption. So, that being so, given the incessant Democratic drumbeat coming from Americans United and that its polemical opinion pieces would nearly all fit comfortably into the Huffington Post, one wonders how Americans United still has its tax exemption?
Then Mr Boston concludes with a suggestion that may be best described as either laughable given all of the above or just astonishing in its unmitigated gall:
Non-profit status and tax exemption are great benefits. Groups – religious and non-religious – that seek to retain that status must abide by a few simple rules. One of them is no partisan politicking. It’s not too much to ask. And any church that really believes that it must wade into an electoral contest is free to surrender its tax exemption first…
Convenient to focus there only on churches. But given its demonstrated partisan mouthiness, maybe as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit Americans United should strongly consider heeding its own advice? Moreover it too may be just as easily “monitored” for “violations”, and it is not the only one out here who knows how to stamp an envelope and mail a complaint letter.
UPDATE, September 22: I wouldn’t normally cite the Daily Caller, but given the subject, this is worthwhile:
…Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, stood up and offered a floor amendment to the Tax Code of 1954. He asked that “tax-exempt non-profits” be forbidden from campaigning against him and his Senate colleagues in future elections…
…Lyndon Johnson gave absolutely no explanation for his amendment then or ever. Groups that support it today claim the non-profit tax exemption is a subsidy that somehow wipes away the First Amendment rights of churches.
Really? Aren’t farmers subsidized, and welfare recipients? When did they lose their free speech?
And what about labor unions? Aren’t they “tax-exempt non-profits”? Do they lobby? Do they get involved in elections? Maybe just a little…
And do we think Americans United fits in there, too?
…The Johnson Amendment is so flagrantly unconstitutional that it’s almost certain to be struck down as soon as it reaches the Supreme Court. But the IRS has maneuvered to keep the high court from ruling on pulpit censorship for 58 years.
Now a group of lawyers, The Alliance Defending Freedom, has organized a campaign to force a test case. For the last four years, pastors across America have banded together on Pulpit Freedom Sunday to speak out on elections one Sunday a year, and send their sermons to the IRS. Last year 539 pastors participated and the IRS blinked once again. This year’s PFS will be October 7. Every Pastor who believes his or her pulpit should be free from government censorship should sign up and participate at PulpitFreedom.org…
It appears Americans United will be getting lots of new pulpit “politicking” material after October 7 to provide blogging fodder for its own non-profit, tax exempt partisanship.