In response to a plan announced by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund to initiate a legal test of IRS limits on electoral political speech by at least 50 pastors on Sept. 28, a UCC church in Columbus, Ohio, is calling for at least 10 times that number to preach on the value of church-state separation on the Sunday prior.
The Wall Street Journal reported on May 9 that the ADF plans to initiate a widespread legal challenge to the IRS rules on political speech on Sept. 28, when an anticipated 50 pastors will intentionally cross the line and publicly endorse political candidates from their pulpits. The ADF is hoping at least one sermon will prompt the IRS to investigate, sparking a court battle that could get the tax provision declared unconstitutional, the WSJ reported.
The Rev. Eric Williams, senior pastor of North Congregational UCC in Columbus, Ohio, is troubled by ADF's plan.
On Aug. 7, Williams sent a letter to clergy colleagues in Ohio, announcing a counter action. Williams is gathering supporters who will publicly ask the IRS to investigate the ADF, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based non-profit organization.
"The promotion of tax fraud, particularly to houses of worship, is not a charitable endeavor," Williams told United Church News. "We believe that the ADF should lose its tax-exempt status."
With the support of the Rev. Robert Molsberry, the UCC's Ohio Conference Minister, Williams is calling for a UCC-led nationwide group of 500 ecumenical, interfaith clergy to use their pulpits on Sept. 21 – one week in advance of the ADF's action – to educate congregations nationwide on why church-state separation is important to ensuring religious liberty.
"I will not use the pulpit of my congregation to serve the interests of any candidate or political organization," Williams said. "I will stand firm in faith for religious freedom."
"I invite you to join me and many other partners in faith to stand firm against this latest attempt by ADF to cross the line and jeopardize the unique role and moral authority that leaders and communities of faith have exercised throughout the history of our nation," Williams wrote to clergy colleagues "I invite you to preach on Sept. 21 about the freedoms that the laws and the Constitution of our nation provide to all leaders and communities of faith."
In addition, on Sept. 8, Williams and an estimated 50 ecumenical, interfaith clergy will hold a press conference in Columbus where they will publicly sign a joint letter to the IRS to "express our concerns and request that the IRS immediately investigate ADF's activities and seek injunctive relief to prohibit ADF from engaging in any further promotion of 'Pulpit Freedom Sunday.'"
"We would like any clergyperson from across the nation to join us at the press conference on Sept. 8 and sign the complaint to the IRS," Williams said. "This is a national issue that affects all of us."
Williams is no stranger to the national spotlight on church-state issues. In January 2006, he and 30 other Columbus-area clergy filed IRS challenges against two prominent Ohio megachurches, accusing the World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church of illegal political activities.
The moderate and liberal clergy called upon the IRS to investigate the World Harvest Church and Fairfield Christian Church for the congregations' alleged partisan support for then-candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican nominee for Ohio governor.
Williams said he believes it's important that the UCC take a lead in educating the public about what churches can and can't do with regards to electoral politics. He charges the ADF is teaching falsehoods about church-state separation by insinuating that religious leaders are somehow being "muzzled" from discussing political issues.
"This is simply not true," Williams said. "It is fitting and appropriate for clergy to discuss the political dimensions of moral, ethical and justice issues, even in the middle of an election campaign. But that is not the same thing as specifically telling parishioners who they should vote for and who they should vote against."
Given the UCC's longstanding support for church-state separation, alongside its tradition of advocating for social, economic and racial justice, Williams said the church is well-positioned to speak to this issue, especially in light of the IRS's dismissal of a complaint filed earlier this year against the denomination.
In February, the UCC's national offices in Cleveland, announced that the denomination was under IRS investigation after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama addressed the church's biennial General Synod in 2007. In May, the IRS completely exonerated the denomination of wrongdoing.
|To indicate interest in participating in the Sept. 8 press conference in Columbus or the Sept. 21 preach-in, contact the Rev. Eric Williams by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.|