Bill Clinton bashed President Bush in a speech delivered from the pulpit of a prominent Manhattan church on the Sunday before the Republican National Convention began.
Yet, Americans United for Separation of Church and State does not view Clinton’s pulpit-based diatribe a violation of tax laws.
Ever since then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D.-Tex.) slipped a provision into a bill back in 1954, federal law has prohibited tax-exempt churches from engaging in partisan political speech. Every election season, Americans United files complaints against churches that it alleges have violated this law. The group also opposes the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (HR 235), sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones (R.-N.C.), that would repeal Johnson’s amendment and allow full freedom of political speech in all American houses of worship.
“It didn’t cross the line,” said liberal Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in an interview on September 1 about Clinton’s August 29 speech at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan. “If you don’t cross the line, if you don’t advocate the defeat of a person, if you just criticize a candidate’s policies . . . there is some legitimate free speech there.”
‘Offends My Values’
Clinton in his speech explicitly targeted the Republican Party in general and President Bush specifically. He also expressed his preference for Democratic candidate John Kerry.
“We couldn’t fund the school programs, but I got my tax cuts,” said Clinton. “This offends my values that I learned in my church.”
“I don’t know why the Republicans hate me so much,” he said. “It is because I’m a white Southern Baptist, and they wonder why I’m not Republican, especially since I’m getting all these tax cuts.”
On the about-to-be-convened Republican convention he said: “Once every four years the Republican Party puts on its compassionate face,” then it returns to Washington and “goes right back to its powerful private lobbying groups and private interests.”
Speaking from the pulpit, Clinton even tried to tie Bush to the TV ads run by the independent Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. “I believe President Bush is a good Christian,” said Clinton. ” . . . But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see through a glass darkly. It doesn’t mean that you can have a bunch of people acting on your behalf and pretending like you don’t know them, to say that the seven people who were on John Kerry’s Swift Boat don’t know what they’re talking about when they say he deserves the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts.”
At the end of his partisan sermon, Clinton said: “I like John Kerry.”
Lynn said Clinton’s speech, while not illegal, was not “appropriate in the broader sense.” He noted that Americans United has filed a complaint with the IRS against a Miami church that hosted Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe the same day as Clinton’s speech. “It was basically a Democratic pep rally in the church,” he said. He said that historically, Americans United has filed 40% of its complaints against churches whose activities lean Democratic and 45% against those whose activities lean Republican.
Lynn also said he has taken action against spiritual leaders who restricted themselves to discussion of the issues. He filed an IRS complaint against Catholic Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs after Sheridan wrote a pastoral letter that said that Catholics who vote for anti-life candidates should not receive Communion. Lynn said what Sheridan did was really electioneering. “His life issues were only about abortion and similar topics,” said Lynn. “He didn’t include opposition to the Iraq war, the death penalty, and other life issues important to the Catholic Church. Only one presidential candidate fit his criteria.”
Tinoa Rodgers, director of media for Riverside, told HUMAN EVENTS, “The church does not endorse any candidates or political parties but welcomes a vigorous debate on all of the issues of the day. All voices are welcome to address the congregation.” He said that Republicans, including New York Gov. George Pataki, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former President George H.W. Bush, have spoken at the church recently.
In contrast to Lynn, Colby May, an attorney and director of the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice, said that Clinton’s speech could be a violation of tax laws and could jeopardize the church’s tax exempt status. “IRS rules state that speakers do not have to endorse or oppose a candidate in order to be in violation,” he said. “The IRS rules say that churches ‘may not intervene in’ an election.” He said that there is no way to tell how many churches have gotten into trouble with the IRS for politics because such proceedings are typically kept secret. But, he said, there are only two known cases of churches losing their tax-exempt status due to political activity.
The IRS itself admits its rules are vague. “In situations where there is no explicit endorsement or partisan activity, there is no bright-line test for determining if the [church] organization participated or intervened in a political campaign,” says the IRS’ Election Year Issues publication for tax-exempt groups. “Instead, all the facts and circumstances must be considered.”
“I feel that the houses of worship in this country, whether I agree with what [Clinton] said or not, should have their 1st Amendment rights restored,” Rep. Jones told HUMAN EVENTS. “Not all churches are treated the same. Catholic and Evangelical churches are targeted by Barry Lynn and other people. They are trying to stifle these churches.” Jones also cited a group of liberals in Kansas that has revealed it has 100 volunteers monitoring sermons and speeches in conservative churches in order to detect violations of tax-exempt status rules. Jones said that the House leadership supports his bill and hopes for a vote on it later this year.