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Fritz Feds

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

The Separation Clause strikes back Below, I jokingly suggested that the California church that allowed Bill Clinton and Gray Davis to "preach" against the recall might be jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. It appears that I underestimated the intellectual honesty of at least some of those who believe that churches should be censored from speaking about political issues.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, not exactly a Republican organization, issued this press release today:

A Los Angeles church that hosted a political rally for Gov. Gray Davis during Sept. 14 services should be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Several newspapers reported Sept. 15 that former President Bill Clinton spoke from the pulpit of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clinton exhorted the congregation to vote against the effort to recall Davis, telling attendees, “Don’t do this. Don’t do this. Don’t shred your Constitution. Don’t shred the fabric of government. Don’t tell people Californians are so impatient that they give somebody an employment contract and then tear it up in the middle because times are tough. This is the right thing to do, to beat this recall.”

Davis himself also addressed the congregants, remarking, “This recall threatens the very fabric of democracy. It is not good for you, it is not good for California. I ask that you defeat it.”

In addition, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Cecil Murray, told the congregation that Davis is “our vital warrior” and “we are his posse.” According to The Washington Post, Murray “urged his flock to renounce the recall.” The paper also noted that “in attendance were dozens of elected Democrats.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the church-run event clearly crossed the line into partisan politicking.

“I believe any fair-minded person would conclude that this event, coming just three weeks before the scheduled recall election, was designed to influence voters to retain Davis in office,” Lynn wrote today in a letter to Steven T. Miller, director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division. “As such, it would seem to be a clear violation of the church’s tax-exempt status.”

I think the policy that threatens churches and other non-profit groups with loss of their tax exempt status if they engage in political speech is a clear violation of the constitutional rights of free speech (and in the case of churches, probably free exercise as well). However, it's nice to see Americans United at least being consistent enough to speak out even against politicians that they generally would support.


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