Written by J. Bennett Guess
October - November 2008
Tax-exempt status questioned
In response to a plan announced by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund to initiate a legal test of IRS limits on electoral political speech, a UCC church in Columbus, Ohio, made an appeal for pastors to preach on the value of church-state separation on the Sunday prior.
The Wall Street Journal reported on May 9 that the ADF planned to initiate a widespread legal challenge to the IRS rules on political speech on Sept. 28, when an estimated 33 pastors intentionally crossed the line and publicly endorsed 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 the 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 called for a UCC-led nationwide group of 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. At least 180 clergy responded.
"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."
On Sept. 8, Williams and 50 ecumenical, interfaith clergy held a press conference in Columbus where they publicly signed 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.' "
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 regard 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."